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Press freedom: Peter Dutton says journalists may have committed a crime

Peter Dutton has been slammed as a hypocrite for suggesting three journalists at the centre of last month’s Australian Federal Police raids would face criminal charges.

Scott Morrison’s government has also been accused of paying “lip service” to press freedom after the Home Affairs Minister bluntly dismissed calls for the AFP to abandon its investigation into senior News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and two ABC reporters.

“If you’ve got top secret documents and they’ve been leaked, it is an offence under the law,” Mr Dutton said yesterday on his regular spot on the Nine Network’s Today Show.

Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance president Marcus Strom unleashed over the remarks, saying it “smacks of hypocrisy from the government”.

“Politicians regularly leak information to journalists when they think it’s in their interests … this can be secret documents, Cabinet documents, discussions within Cabinet,” Mr Strom said.

“These journalists were acting in the public interest and reporting in the public interest,” he added.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton debated press freedom on the Today show this morning. Picture: Supplied
media_cameraLabor leader Anthony Albanese and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton debated press freedom on the Today show this morning. Picture: Supplied

“If he thinks that what they’ve done under the current legal framework could be unlawful, he needs to act to make sure journalism is a lawful pursuit in this country.”

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller also blasted the federal government’s stance, saying: “We are deeply disappointed with Mr Dutton’s comments today and appalled by the damage that this government is inflicting on our international reputation for democratic press freedom.”

ABC reporter Dan Oakes. Picture: Supplied
media_cameraABC reporter Dan Oakes. Picture: Supplied
News Corp reporter Annika Smethurst. Picture Gary Ramage
media_cameraNews Corp reporter Annika Smethurst. Picture Gary Ramage

“We need the government to show active leadership and intellectual credibility on the issue of press freedom, rather than defer to rhetoric and contradictions,” he said.

“Our journalist Annika Smethurst revealed plans for our national surveillance department to spy on its citizens for the first time. The public has a right to know that information.”

Mr Miller said Mr Dutton was using laws more than 100 years old to “prosecute and intimidate” journalists and that it was “an invasion of the open society we hold close and dear”.

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller at the National Press Club address in Canberra. Picture Gary Ramage
media_cameraNews Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller at the National Press Club address in Canberra. Picture Gary Ramage

“As of today, we are more determined than ever to ensure Australia’s press freedoms are modernised, and protected. It is in the interest of all Australians,” he said.

Freed journalist Peter Greste, speaking at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London yesterday, said Australia was being compared with Iran following raids on Ms Smethurst and the ABC.

The media freedom campaigner, who was jailed in Egypt for more than a year for his reporting for Al Jazeera, said Australia needed an urgent review of media laws.

He said when he was speaking to a colleague in the ABC’s Persian bureau about the Australian raids that his colleague replied: “So it’s just like Iran then.”

Mr Greste also criticised the Federal Government’s current review, saying it was being framed by committee intent on national security rather than media freedom.

“National security must surely be about protecting press freedom,” he said.

ABC journalist Peter Greste. Picture: Supplied
media_cameraABC journalist Peter Greste. Picture: Supplied

The backlash to Mr Dutton’s remarks comes just a day after high-profile human rights lawyer Amal Clooney warned against the erosion of press freedom in Australia.

Campbell Reid, News Corp’s group executive for corporate affairs, policy and government relations, also called on the government to stop paying “lip service” to press freedom. “The government cannot keep talking the talk and not walking the walk,” he said.

Walkley Foundation chief executive Louisa Graham also hit out at Mr Dutton’s remarks, while calling for stronger whistleblower protections and for journalists to be exempted from national security laws “that would put them in jail for doing their jobs”.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese backed the media organisations, saying it would be a “common sense outcome” to scrap the investigations.

Mr Greste wants media companies to be involved in drafting any new laws to ensure that the right balance is struck.

“If you are trying to strike a balance between press freedom and national security both sides need to be involved in that process,” he said.

“If we do that we’ll go a long way towards protecting national security, press freedom and the role of democracies.”

Former foreign minister Julie Bishop was also at the London conference, chairing a discussion between representatives of Jamaica, Ghana, Rwanda and Namibia.

When asked about the raids in Australia and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney’s criticism of Australia on Wednesday, Ms Bishop replied: “Fortunately the Australian foreign minister was here yesterday when Amal made those comments so any comment I made would be superfluous.”

The conference also heard from BBC director-general Lord Hall who said the world was in the grip of the biggest attack on truth since the 1930s.

The broadcast boss compared the current prevalence of fake news as similar to the misinformation and propaganda spread in the decade which saw the rise of Adolf Hitler.

“An assault on truth is an assault on democracy,” he said.

“All those who believe in integrity in news must work together to turn the tide.”

Stephen.drill@news.co.uk

Originally published as Dutton blasted for outrageous claim

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