The journalist’s union MEAA has condemned the Australian Federal Police, which admitted to accessing a journalist’s metadata.
The union said it was “appalled” the AFP trawled through Paul Farrell’s metadata – information about who and how Farrell had been contacting. MEAA said it was an “attack on press freedom”.
Two years ago Farrell, an investigative journalist for The Guardian Australia, had published a piece about asylum seeker policies.
In February this year, Farrell learned the AFP had launched an investigation about the story. Farrell obtained the 200 plus documents relating to him and the story’s investigation through the Privacy Act. Ethically, journalists are required to protect sources.
“It’s a mosaic in document form of state surveillance of journalists by police,” Farrell wrote in February.
“The files give an insight into the fragile state of journalism in Australia and the ease with which the police choose to take up these investigations because of poorly defined laws.”
After lodging a complaint under the Privacy Act after the initial documentation, as some information had been redacted, Farrell learned the AFP had gone through his metadata – including information about who he’s been in contact with. The AFP said it had not accessed journalists’ metadata since October 2015.
The AFP said it had sought telecommunication records – “subscriber checks” – and email records of Farrell’s correspondence. According to The Guardian, the telecommunications checks were made in 2014 before new laws passed requiring a warrant. And it’s not clear what form the email checks were in.
“The AFP has previously confirmed generally that it had accessed journalists’ metadata but said such requests were ‘rare’,” Amanda Meade wrote for The Guardian.
The MEAA has condemned the move. “It comes down to this: journalists writing legitimate news stories in the public interest now have police trawling through their private metadata all because a government agency is embarrassed about a leak,” said CEO Paul Murphy.
“In the process, the rights of journalists are trampled on. The public’s right to know what governments do in our name is being overridden by public servants seeking to cover up a scandal in order to persecute and prosecute a whistle-blower.
“It makes a mockery of open and transparent government. This news, coming as it does just weeks before UNESCO World Press Freedom Day on May 3, shows the contempt being shown for the principles of press freedom.”
The International Federation of Journalists followed suit in condemning the move. “Journalists have the right and responsibility to protect their sources,” it said in a statement.
“Governments should not be able to access confidential sources, particularly through secretly accessing journalists’ metadata. Press freedom is an important part of Australia’s democracy, yet actions such as these and the laws that support them, weaken the fourth estate.”
Murphy added: “In just a few short years, Australia has fallen from being a bastion of press freedom to a country that has passed a raft of so-called ‘national security’ laws that allow government agencies to pursue journalists and their sources, threaten them with lengthy jail terms of up to 10 years, and criminalise legitimate journalism in the public interest. All to stop government agencies from facing proper scrutiny from the community they serve.