A search warrant used to raid a prominent Australian journalist’s home in an operation that sparked wide-ranging debate over press freedom was overturned by the country’s High Court on Wednesday.
The seven-member bench unanimously ruled that the warrant to search the home of reporter Annika Smethurst in June 2019 was invalid and that the police search and seizure of data from her phone and laptop was unlawful.
The raid sought to identify sources of a report published by Smethurst in April 2018 alleging that the government was planning to expand its powers to spy on Australian citizens.
Smethurst’s report, published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, included images of documents from the Australian Signals Directorate intelligence agency and other officials marked “Secret” and “Top Secret”.
The Australian Federal Police search warrant sought to identify the whistleblower who leaked the documents and was based on a 1914 law meant to counter World War I-era German espionage.
The High Court, ruling on a complaint filed by News Corp, said the warrant failed to identify the exact offence allegedly committed by Smethurst and was thus invalid.
It stopped short of ruling on another News Corp argument that the raid violated Smethurst’s “implied freedom of political communication” — a key legal issue challenging the lack of constitutional protections in Australia for whistleblowers and the press.
It also did not determine if the Australian Federal Police must return the data seized in the raid, opening the way for further legal wrangling over the case.
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.
The twin operations sparked a storm of protest from media and civil liberties organisations, with News Corp, Australia’s largest news media company, 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 AFP’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 ABC has launched separate legal challenges to the raid on its headquarters.