AFP to highlight 'less intrusive' approach in new press freedom submission

Katharine Murphy Political editor
Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The Australian federal police will make a second submission to federal parliament’s press freedom inquiry as part of efforts to draw a line over controversy triggered by raids on the ABC and the News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst.

The new AFP commissioner, Reece Kershaw, has been keen to project a more constructive disposition after raids earlier this year generated negative global headlines about Australia’s creeping surveillance state, and triggered a campaign by the Australian media in support of press freedom, with a rare public display of unanimity among publishers and broadcasters.

One of Kershaw’s first acts in the job was engaging former Australian Crime Commission chair John Lawler to examine how the police dealt with unauthorised disclosures, espionage and foreign interference, war crimes and the application of parliamentary privilege.

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The AFP confirmed on Friday that the organisation would make a second pass at parliament’s press freedom inquiry, addressing the current warrant system. The second submission follows a round of consultations Kershaw has been spearheading with media executives and senior journalists.

Media companies have called for the right to challenge government applications for warrants against journalists, exemptions for journalists to laws that would see them jailed for doing their job, legislated protections for public sector whistleblowers, and reforms to both freedom of information and defamation laws.

“The AFP will be making a supplementary submission to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security on its inquiry into the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press,” an AFP spokesman said.

“The submission will highlight the AFP’s commitment to working with government, the committee and media organisations to identify and implement more cooperative and less intrusive mechanisms to support the collection of evidence in the course of unauthorised disclosure investigations.”

The submission is also expected to address developments since the first submission to the inquiry. The AFP spokesman said the commitment to come back to the committee “follows the AFP commissioner’s positive engagement with representatives of the Australian media”.

“It also demonstrates the AFP’s commitment to the requirement under the ministerial direction on press freedoms, issued on 8 August 2019, to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia.”

The AFP has not ruled out charging journalists targeted in the recent raids, despite the public-interest nature of their reporting – although it is understood the police are reluctant to go down that path. The search warrants used in the raids are currently being challenged in court.