Critics accuse authorities of using national security as an excuse for threatening journalists over media revelations that are embarrassing for the government.
Australian authorities have dropped an investigation into a third journalist accused of receiving classified information to produce a report on alleged troop misconduct in Afghanistan, the second media probe dismissed amid concerns over press freedom.
Australian Federal Police (AFP) targeted Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) reporter Dan Oakes and his producer Sam Clark when they executed search warrants on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters on June 5 last year.
A day earlier, police had raided the Canberra home of News Corp. journalist Annika Smethurst with warrants to search her house, computer and phone more than a year after she cited “top secret letters” in a newspaper report.
Oakes on Thursday became the last of the trio to be cleared of charges.
Police said it believed it had "reasonable prospects of conviction" but the prosecutor's office wanted the investigation into journalist Daniel Oakes dropped as there was no public interest in continuing.
"The public interest does not require a prosecution in the particular circumstances of this case," the AFP said in a statement.
Obviously good news today that I and @sclark_melbs are not going to be charged over our reporting on alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. But this story is not over. My colleagues @markwillacy @alexblucher and @rory_callinan have done incredible work on this as well.— Dan Oakes (@DanielMOakes) October 15, 2020
Alleged war crime in Afghanistan
The decision closes an anxious chapter for Australian media outlets which last year decried raids on the ABC head office and the home of a News Corp newspaper editor over successive days in relation to stories they had run.
The ABC had said the investigation into its reporter was in relation to 2017 stories about alleged troop misconduct in Afghanistan, and involved the police examining some 9,000 computer files at the state-funded broadcaster.
"While we welcome this decision, we also maintain the view the matter should never have gone this far," ABC managing director David Anderson said in a statement on Thursday.
"This whole episode has been both disappointing and disturbing."
The AFP dropped its case against the News Corp editor in May due to insufficient evidence after a court ruled the warrant used to raid the journalist's home was invalid.
"No journalist should have to endure what @DanielMOakes went through for more than two years," said Marcus Strom, president of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance in a tweet.
"Laws that criminalise national security reporting remain on the books. We need urgent reform."
Oakes, the ABC reporter, retweeted a post from the broadcaster's director of news, Gaven Morris, which described the decision as "justice at long last".
BREAKING: Justice at long last: @DanielMOakes will not be prosecuted over the excellent #AfghanFiles reporting for @abcnews. The AFP have written to ABC Managing Director David Anderson: "The public interest does not require a prosecution," the letter says.— Gaven Morris (@gavmorris) October 15, 2020
It took 736 days, but today my friend and colleague @DanielMOakes was told he would not be prosecuted for doing his job. The investigation is now over, the fight for media law reform continues.— Samuel Clark (@sclark_melbs) October 15, 2020
The stories remain online, perhaps more relevant than ever https://t.co/yv0JBAoELX
Struggle for free press
The police raids in June last year brought rival Australian media organisations together to demand more press freedom and guarantees that reporters would not risk jail over public interest journalism.
Media organisations argue that press freedoms have been eroded by more than 70 counterterrorism and security laws passed by Parliament since the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Critics accuse authorities of using national security as an excuse for threatening journalists over media revelations that are merely embarrassing to the government.
Critics also note that the raids came less than three weeks after Australia’s last election in which the conservative government narrowly retained power.
They argue that the timing suggested police wanted to protect the government from any political backlash from the journalist investigations which were widely described as an intimidation of media.