We need to be free to hold power to account

We should all be concerned by the recent Australian Federal Police raids on journalists and news outlets. Any attempt to stifle the media's ability to hold power to account undermines the values our democracy holds dear.

On Wednesday the AFP spent eight hours in the ABC's headquarters in Ultimo sifting through computer systems gathering material related to an investigative story the broadcaster had broadcast in 2017. That story focused on alleged unlawful killings by defence personnel in Afghanistan.

The story was well within the scope of public interest. If our armed forces are committing unlawful acts in the service of their country, we ought to have the right to know. There should be protections not only for the journalists who bring such stories to light but for their sources.

The day before the raids on the ABC, federal police raided the home of News Corp Australia journalist Annike Smethurst. Of interest to the feds was the leaking of material to her relating to a plan within government to allow secret spying on Australian citizens.

Again, that story was well within the scope of public interest. Of course we ought to know if the government plans to intercept our emails, listen in our conversations and watch our movements.

The raids should start a conversation about the vital role the free media plays in a democracy and how that function ought to be protected.

Balancing the needs of national security against the values that make our nation a place in which we want to live can be tricky. Law enforcement agencies need to be able to keep tabs on criminals and potential terrorists and journalists need to be responsible about what they report and how they report it.

However, taking a big stick to the media over stories clearly in the public interest goes to the heart of our democracy. We are not yet a police state where authorities can hamper or intimidate journalists into silence. And we certainly want to stop any tendency towards becoming one.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has distanced himself and his ministers from the AFP raids, saying they were conducted at the urging of department heads.

What the nation needs to see is that laws are changed so anonymous, unelected senior bureaucrats do not have the power to stifle press freedom with ham-fisted raids such as those we have just witnessed.

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