Australian police drop probe of reporter, whistleblower

Sydney (AFP) –


Australian police on Wednesday dropped the investigation of a prominent journalist and government whistleblower over leaked government secrets, ending a case which sparked wide-ranging debate over press freedom in the country.

The federal police said they would not seek any charges against Annika Smethurst, a political reporter for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, over a 2018 article alleging the government planned to expand its powers to spy on Australian citizens.

They also dropped their investigation into the whistleblower suspected of providing Smethurst with the classified documents on which she based her report.

The decision came six weeks after Australia's High Court invalidated a search warrant police used to raid Smethurst's Canberra home in June 2019 as part of a hunt for the source of the leaks.

The court ruled that the police seizure of data from Smethurst's phone and laptop was unlawful.

The raid sought to identify the person who gave Smethurst "top secret" documents from the Australian Signals Directorate intelligence agency and other officials.

Ian McCartney, deputy commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, said the High Court ruling prompted a review of the Smethurst case which "determined there is insufficient evidence to progress the investigation".

"No one will be prosecuted in relation to this unauthorised disclosure," he told a press conference.

A day after the Smethurst search, federal police also raided the Sydney headquarters of public broadcaster ABC, trying to track down another whistleblower linked to ABC reporting on alleged war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

Two ABC journalists remain under investigation in that case and the broadcaster's head of news, Gaven Morris, called Wednesday for the police to also drop that probe.

But McCartney insisted the ABC reporters remained "under active investigation".

The twin operations against Smethurst and the ABC sparked a storm of protest from media and civil liberties organisations, with News Corp warning of "a dangerous act of intimidation" that will "chill public interest reporting".

Unlike many western countries, Australia does not have a bill of rights or a constitutionally enshrined protection for freedom of speech, or laws to protect government whistleblowers.

Following the raids, all Australia's major news organisations put aside their normally fierce rivalry to issue a joint call for legislation to protect public-interest journalism.

Critics were particularly concerned over the federal police's refusal to rule out handing down criminal charges against journalists who publish reports based on leaked classified information.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose conservative government has implemented a series of controversial law and order measures over the past two years, insisted there was no political involvement in the police investigations.

Following the protests, however, the federal police and government announced new guidelines requiring more oversight of investigations involving journalists.

But they insisted on the need to crack down on the leak of classified information and said journalists could not be considered above the law.

The police decision to drop the case against Smethurst came just a day after the release of a book, "On Secrets", in which she recounts the chilling impact the police raid had on herself and on press freedoms in Australia.