Home affairs refuses to divulge how many warrants sought to investigate journalists | Media

The home affairs department has refused to compile information on how many warrants police agencies have sought to investigate journalists, claiming to do so would be an “unreasonable diversion of resources”.

Labor is concerned about the evidence given to the parliamentary inquiry on press freedom and is set to question how it can properly assess the impact of security laws without knowing how many journalists are in agencies’ sights.

On Friday the joint committee on intelligence and security will hear from the home affairs department, the Australian federal police, the Australian Signals Directorate, the defence department, the Right to Know coalition and the Law Council.

The inquiry was sparked by AFP raids of the ABC for its reporting of alleged unlawful killings by Australian troops in Afghanistan and of Annika Smethurst’s house for her report of plans to extend ASD powers to spy on Australian citizens.

In a series of questions on 28 August committee members asked the department how many search warrants, surveillance devices and computer access warrants had been sought by state and territory police in relation to journalists.

The department replied that it produces statistics of the number of telecommunications intercepts by category of offence in its annual reports, but the information is “not particularised in relation to employment type” so it doesn’t know how many relate to journalists.

In relation to state and territory police, the department replied “there is no central register with a list of surveillance device or computer access warrants” and noted that collation of a list would involve work with multiple agencies.

“Compilation of such a list may not accurately reflect all of the warrants that have been issued given the multiple jurisdictions involved,” it said. “The effort required to produce an accurate list of this information is an unreasonable diversion of resources.”

It said there was also no central list of search warrants, but given raids are “generally conducted in an overt manner” it is reasonable to conclude there are a “very small number of search warrants executed against journalists or news media organisations” in relation to unauthorised leaks.

At the midwinter ball on Wednesday evening, Anthony Albanese won applause from the federal parliamentary press gallery for his declaration that “journalism is not a crime and should be never be treated as such”.

“It’s something we simply can’t be complacent about so we need to cherish it, we need to nurture it, and we need to support whatever legislative change is required to ensure that press freedom remains a central component of our democratic system,” he said.

Earlier in September Scott Morrison said the government is “absolutely committed to press freedom” but warned that “no one … is above the law in this country”.

Morrison claimed that press freedom is “not under threat in this country from my government or anyone else” despite the fact the AFP has made clear that the raids were directed not just at the sources of unauthorised leaks but that journalists themselves could be the subject of charges for publishing classified information.

In its submission the department said press freedom is a “fundamental pillar of Australian democracy” but in certain circumstances it must be “balanced with the imperative to protect national security”.

At a hearing on Thursday the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said that evidence suggests the department views press freedom and security as “competing interests”.

The head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, Rory Medcalf, said the department’s evidence on that point was “reasonable as far as it goes”.

“But I don’t think the department sufficiently grasps the organic interplay between national and public interest – these are not at odds, they’re symbiotic, they can and should support one and other,” he said.

Media outlets have pushed for law changes including a right to contest search warrants before they are executed, stronger legal protections for whistleblowers who disclose information in the public interest and exemptions for journalism from various national security offences.

Australia’s spy agency has lobbied against blanket exemptions, warning they could lead to hostile actors exploiting journalists as “cover” for their spying activities.

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