ABC statement to the Senate Press Freedom Inquiry by Director, News Gaven Morris. First published 12 August 2020:

It’s more than three years since the ABC published The Afghan Files, reported by our journalist Dan Oakes, exposing alleged crimes by Australian special forces.

It’s more than a year since the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC’s headquarters in Ultimo – hunting for Dan’s confidential sources.

It’s more than a month since the AFP gave a brief of evidence concerning Dan to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

Yet Dan’s fate still remains uncertain, the spectre of criminal charges still hanging over his head – for the “crime” of doing journalism and revealing information that we believe the public has a right to know.

The accuracy of the reporting has not been challenged.

We respect the Commonwealth DPP’s independence in assessing and making a decision on the brief, as she is required to do.

We have made submissions to the Director on why it is not in the public interest to pursue charges against Dan.

  • A free press is absolutely critical to a properly functioning democracy. The ABC has an obligation to report to the public on stories of public interest – independently and without fear or favour.
  • Prosecuting a journalist would have a chilling effect on public interest journalism. Straight away following last year’s raid the ABC had sources withdraw from stories – meaning matters remain concealed from public view.
  • The Afghan Files stories canvassed matters of clear public interest, including alleged war crimes. It would be profoundly disturbing for a journalist to be charged in connection with reporting on matters that Australians have a right to know.

I’d also like to voice our concern about the proposed new regime which could see the AFP serve a “Notice to Produce” on the media instead of a search warrant.

Unlike a search warrant, the media can contest a Notice to Produce. But that offers us little comfort, as we expect the AFP would still take the easier path of obtaining a search warrant anyway.

A year ago the Home Affairs Minister directed the AFP to take account of the importance of press freedom to society before investigating journalists.

If the value of press freedom is important enough for a ministerial direction, then it’s important enough to be enshrined in law – in search warrant laws and in the various other laws which can effectively make journalism a crime.

Journalists like Dan Oakes should not have to fear criminal punishment for honestly and courageously reporting the truth to Australians.

First published via the ABC Media Centre on 12 August 2020

Header Image: People entering and leaving the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Centre in Ultimo, Sydney. Credit: kokkai/iStock