CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Police announced on Thursday that a third journalist will not be charged with obtaining classified information 16 months after high-profile police raids triggered national outrage over the state of press freedom in Australia.
Australian Federal Police targeted Australian Broadcasting Corp. 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.
Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Herron’s office had found there were “reasonable prospects” of convicting Oakes on the evidence of obtaining classified government information, a police statement said.
But after considering factors including the role of public interest journalism in Australia’s democracy, Herron’s office “determined the public interest does not require a prosecution in the particular circumstances of this case,” the statement said.
Clark was similarly cleared of charges in July over the same television investigation that he and Oakes broadcast in 2017 that alleged Australian troops had killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan in a potential war crime.
Those allegations are still under police investigation.
Police announced in May that Smethurst would not be charged due to a lack of evidence.
She had reported in News Corp. Australia’s Sunday newspapers on April 29, 2018, that the heads of the defense and home affairs departments planned to create new espionage powers that would allow an intelligence agency to spy on Australian citizens for the first time.
ABC managing director David Anderson welcomed the police decision on Oakes, but added the “matter should never had gone this far.”
“That the CDPP has reached the decision that prosecuting our journalists is not in the public interest only compounds what we have argued all along: Journalists in this country should not be prosecuted for doing their jobs and legislation needs to be changed to provide proper protection for journalists and their sources when they are acting in the public interest,” Anderson said in a statement.
Oakes described the three years since his report, “The Afghan Files,” was broadcast as part of seven-part series as “very difficult.”
“While it’s been difficult and it’s had an impact on my family, I wouldn’t change the fact that we did these stories and that we tried to draw the public’s attention to them,” Oakes told ABC.
The police raids in June last year brought rival Australian media organizations together to demand more press freedom and guarantees that reporters would not risk jail over public interest journalism.
Media organizations 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.
David McBride, a former Australian army lawyer who admits leaking classified documents about the Australian Special Air Service Regiment’s involvement in the Afghanistan war to the ABC, is fighting charges. He argues he faces up to 50 years in prison for being a whistle blower.
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