PERTH, Australia (AP) — The Australian Federal Court ruled Monday that a police raid last year on the country’s national broadcaster was legal, prompting fears of increasing secrecy in Australia’s institutions.
The Australian Federal Police raided the state-backed Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sydney headquarters last June over the leaking of classified documents. Dubbed “The Afghan Files,” ABC had reported in 2017 allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
The raids sparked public outrage and were condemned as media intimidation.
ABC launched a challenge to the validity of the warrant, arguing it was “legally unreasonable,” but the case was dismissed by Federal Court Justice Wendy Abraham, who ordered ABC to pay the costs of the other parties.
The decision allows the Australian Federal Police to keep all the material seized during the raid.
In a written submission, ABC lawyers said the search warrant was a “very significant intrusion of privacy.”
Abraham said the police tried not to be too intrusive in the execution of the warrant as evidenced by ABC’s lawyers being present throughout the search.
Under Australia’s increasingly stringent national security laws, it is illegal for Commonwealth officers to leak documents or publish the information.
The whistleblower, former military lawyer David William McBride, has previously admitted leaking documents that formed part of the basis for ABC’s reports. He has been charged with a raft of criminal offenses and is currently out on bail until his next court appearance on Feb. 24.
ABC managing director David Anderson said the warrant was an attempt to “intimidate journalists.”
“This ruling highlights the serious problem with Australia’s secrecy laws,” he said. “Australia has by far the most onerous secrecy laws of any comparable Western democracy — the U.K., U.S., Canada, New Zealand.”
“This is at odds with our expectation that we live in an open and transparent society,” he said.
ABC news director Gaven Morris called for reform to protect whistleblowers. “The way public interest journalism is able to be undertaken in this country is a mess,” he said. “It’s time to recognize that we have a right to know what goes on inside our democracy and it’s time we go on and fix it.”
Morris said ABC would consider appealing the decision.
The Canberra home of a reporter from News Corp., owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, was also raided last June in the search for unrelated classified documents. News Corp. is challenging the validity of that warrant in separate High Court proceedings.
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