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Maria Ressa confronts press

Becoming the “poster girl for press freedom”

In June last year, federal police entered journalist Annika Smethurst's house. She looks back on that fateful morning

Annika Smethurst

Update: Annika’s story has since progressed. After the incident, the Australian Federal Police attracted global criticism for the raid on Smethurst’s home. Smethurst’s High Court challenge has since ruled that the AFP's warrant failed to specify the offence being investigated and was not correctly issued.

Like most journalists reporting in Western democracies, I believed there was an implied right to freedom of the press in Australia.

Covering politics and exposing news that governments want concealed comes with a risk. But house raids and intimidation techniques were supposed to dog journalists in totalitarian regimes, not in Australia. It was a threat that never grazed my mind. 

That changed on a Tuesday morning in June when I heard a knock at the door of my Canberra apartment, my home of five years. The modest rental had become my private retreat, a sanctuary from some of the more public aspects of my job. 

On that June morning, I was planning a typical Tuesday: meet the cleaner, go to work, a walk later in the day, come home and cook dinner. A glorious embrace of the mundane.

The cleaner was due to arrive before 9am, so the knock at my door had not come as a surprise. Instead five Australian Federal Police officers greeted me.

The officers handed me a copy of a story I had written almost a year earlier. While their presence was a shock, it was clear which story had triggered such a heavy-handed response. 

Reporters always want to break yarns that have an impact. The sort of stories that have ripple effects and force governments to respond. In reality, those yarns can be rare. The daily job of a newspaper report often requires more repetitive tasks: writing that first, albeit, rough draft of history.

I knew this story had caused a stir.

The Canberra headquarters of the Australian Signals Directorate, the subject of the original article 'Spying shock: Shades of Big Brother as cyber security vision comes to light'. Picture: Kym Smith

“The police officers searched my drawers, every page of my cookbooks and in my bathroom cupboards....”

The article revealed a secret plan that would have allowed the Australian Signals Directorate — our digital spooks — to spy on Australian citizens for the first time. This was a monumental change to Australia’s national security laws given the Australian Federal Police and domestic spy agency ASIO already have the power to investigate Australians with a warrant. Under current laws the ASD — whose mission statement is “Reveal Their Secrets — Protect Our Own” — must not conduct an activity to produce intelligence on an Australian. 

Legendary US newspaperman William Randolph Hearst often told his editors: ‘news is something which somebody wants suppressed: all the rest is advertising’. It’s a noble aspiration but one, admittedly, we don’t always adhere to. As a newspaper, we thought that was something you deserved to know, even if the Government didn’t want to tell you. 

This was something somebody clearly wanted to suppress.

The raid on my home occurred more than 400 days after the story appeared on the front of the Sunday paper. The police officers searched my drawers, every page of my cookbooks and in my bathroom cupboards. They took paintings off the walls, snooped through handbags, my laundry baskets, my bin. 

With my passcode and passwords, the police had access to text messages, emails, the to do lists I kept in my phone and screen shots of clothes I might want to buy. 

That alone should not warrant a comparison with the brave work of journalists who risk their lives in totalitarian regimes in pursuit of truth. But that can't be the only measure of press freedom.

The Government and police have refused to rule out prosecuting me. But this issue is bigger than me. Raiding my home and the ABC offices exposed the risk that whistleblowers and journalists take in exposing matters that are in the public interest. Journalism is under threat.

One of the few smiles I get when I think back to that morning is my naivety. I thought, or perhaps hoped, the raid would be over in an hour, that no one would find out. I would get a quote from the carpet cleaner, go to work, cook dinner. 

Instead, within 30 minutes of the police arriving at my home, I had media on my front lawn and had been contacted by a book publisher and The New York Times. This was no ordinary day.

I never wanted to be the poster girl for press freedom but the outpouring of support suggests Australians are rightly uncomfortable with what happened that week. This was a tipping point.

When News Corp’s Michael Miller, Nine’s Hugh Marks and the ABC’s David Anderson united at the National Press Club recently to call for six key areas of reform in relation to press freedom, Marks used the "boiling frog" metaphor to explain the dangers of gradual change. 

Monash University associate professor Johan Lidberg believes there are 64 new laws and amendments relating to Australia’s national security that have been introduced since the September 11 terror attacks.  

No one questions the need to protect Australian citizens, that is the primary task of governments. But Australia now offers fewer protections to journalists than other Western democracies. This fear of the truth in Australia poses a threat to our democracy.

As journalists, we understand there are limits to what we can and cannot publish. Whether it's matters before a court, defamatory content or national security stories which could place people in danger, we understand the limits. It’s a responsibility we take seriously. 

As citizens of a free and fair society, you are also entitled to know what is happening in your name. As taxpayers, you have the right to know what governments are doing with the money you hand over. Those that expose the truth should be free to do so without the threat of jail.

Our current laws have turned journalism into a crime and limit our ability to hold the powerful to account.

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