Guardian journalist targeted by (Australian) ‘spycops’ agency: lessons for UK

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Policing is globalised, as also the cloning of political policing legislation and practices via extremist surveillance laws. A leading Guardian journalist – Paul Farrell – discovered that his communications have been monitored by the Australian Federal Police (the same organisation that UK spycop John Dines worked for at a senior level, investigating Finance crime), As for Mr Farrell’s ‘crime’, this was merely to research and write articles critical of the Australian Government – in particular, its maritime incursions and treatment of asylum-seekers. This surveillance by a state agency is partly legitimsed by a newly introduced (March 2015) data retention law – formally known as the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act  – that provides for warrants against journalists and includes powers to monitor metadata not dissimilar to elements of Britain’s ‘Snoopers Charter’ (which is expected to become law soon). Mr Farrell’s fate may therefore not only apply to other journalists in Australia but might well presage an escalation of Government monitoring of journalists in the UK too once its data retention laws are safely in place. Newspaper proprietors and journalists alike ignore these developments at their peril…

Earlier this year the Turkish Government, in a move widely condemned, took over the running of the country’s main newspaper, Zaman, because it considered its content too critical of the Erdogan regime. The approach being taken to deter criticism in the media in Australia, although not so blatant is just as effective and amounts to nothing less than press censorship.

Mr Farrell’s crime has been to write extensively on the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers and their treatment by the Australian authorities, particularly regarding their detention on Nauru and Manus Island, as well as maritime incursions by the Australian navy. This week, after making enquiries under Privacy Act legislation, Mr Farrell received confirmation he has had his communications monitored by the Australian authorities – so that the sources of his stories can be identified (and presumably prosecuted).

It should be mentioned, too, that last year Australia passed new laws criminalising the leaking of information about the conditions or treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees. Australia also passed legislation curbing press freedom and introducing offences applied to journalists that could see imprisonment as penalty.

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Vaults that house AFP files

The admission by the Australian Federal Police, an arm of Government, that it monitors the communications of Mr Farrell begs the question, just how many more journalists’ communications it monitors, to what extent and how is the information gleaned, compiled and used? These are important questions in relation to any counrty, let alone one that purports to be a ‘democracy’ where press freedom is supposedly sacrosanct.

Further, the admission by the AFP also acts as a clear warning to whistleblowers not to leak information to the press (unless, that is  they adopt secure methods to conceal their identity – e.g. using PGP for email, encrypted meassging services, SecureDrop for sending files, and other precautions).

Earlier this year, in February, Mr Farrell requested a copy of his police files from the AFP, though he had no idea how much these files would reveal about the extent Government authorities would go to track down his confidential sources: there were more than 200 heavily redacted pages on Mr Farrell. These files on Mr Farrell consisted of operational centre meeting minutes, file notes, interview records as well as a plan for an investigation the AFP undertook into one of Mr Farrell’s stories. The files also revealed that the AFP had drawn up a list of ‘suspects’ as well as possible offences committed.

These files related to one particular story Mr Farrell worked on – namely, in April 2014 he reported how one of the vessels involved in Australia’s unlawful incursions into Indonesian waters, the Ocean Protector, had gone far deeper into Indonesian waters than the government had disclosed. Following an admission by the Australian Government that this incursion was true, Indonesian warships were moved towards the Australian border. An Australian navy captain was sacked, a second officer was sanctioned and five other Naval personnel were ‘counselled’.

Interestingly, last month The Guardian published an article (under the byline Australian Associated Press) that revealed how there had been six breaches of Indonesian territory by Australia when turning back boats carrying asylum-seekers. These turnbacks are illegal under international maritime law.

Below is an extract from correspondence by Mr Farrell with the Australian authorities re Australian navy incursions into Indonesian waters. The correspondence and replies (heavily redacted) can be accessed in full here.

Screenshot from 2016-04-15 11:24:57

The AFP has also admitted they have accessed the metadata of journalists 13 times over an 18-month period. The magazine Crikey also reported on this.

The Telecommunications (Interceptions and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act ensures that all journalists’ sources can be compromised. Consequently, this could have a chilling effect on the exchange of information. The legislation requires telecommunications service providers to retain and secure for two years all telecommunications data.

The Act established a journalist information warrants regime. While the Liberal Government and the Labor opposition agreed to this warranting system, such warrants can be obtained in secret and so media organisations will be none the wiser as to whether they have been or are targetted. Warrants to gain access to metadata – to the information about whom a journalist has been talking with and when – must, however, pass a so-called “public interest test”, where a public advocate argues against the warrant, though this too will be kept secret.

Indeed, should journalists report that this warranting process against them is occurring, they can, under the legislation face up to two years jail.

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UK definition of metadata applies anywhere

There are other laws in Australia that restrict journalism. For example, the Commonwealth Crimes Act criminalises any disclosure of government information, regardless of the seriousness, regardless of the intent, and regardless of the public interest. The insertion of a new offence into the Asio Act that criminalises any form of disclosure about “special intelligence operations” can see journalists jailed for reporting on important intelligence related stories. Also, under the heading of  “secrecy and disclosure provisions“, the Border Force Act states that releasing information to anyone is only permitted by the secretary of the department responsible for detention centres: “Under the proposed measures, the unauthorised disclosures of information, including personal information will be punishable by imprisonment for two years”.

In Mr Farrell’s case he could, in theory – though this is unlikely – face imprisonment of up to four years: a) for contravention of the Border Force Act (in relation to the publication of leaks by refugees and/or their advocates) and b) for contravention of the Telecommunications (Interceptions and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act, merely for reporting on how he has been monitored.

The threat of both or either of these sanctions is supposedly enough to keep the press under control. This is unequivocal censorship. It is a form of censorship that could well be seen in the UK, too, when the latest iteration of the ‘Snoopers Charter’ becomes law.

Perhaps the only way to stop such censorship is if all the main media outlets in Australia (and in the UK if this threat arises) agree to stop publishing their papers until the Government backs down and repeals their draconian legislation.

Finally, here is a copy of a recent letter from refugee children detained on Nauru – a letter that is being circulated on the Internet (beyond the Australian Government’s reach)…

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For more on the appalling treatment of Australia’s offshore refugees, click here and here.

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This entry was posted in Refugees, Surveillance and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Guardian journalist targeted by (Australian) ‘spycops’ agency: lessons for UK

  1. Pingback: Guardian journalist targeted by (Australian) ‘spycops’ agency: lessons for UK – by UNDERCOVER1 | winstonclose

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