Australia’s High Court ruled on Wednesday that a warrant used by police to search a journalist’s home was unlawful but declined to order seized material destroyed, in a decision that received qualified praise from press freedom advocates.
The seven-member bench unanimously ruled that the warrant to search the home of News Corp reporter Annika Smethurst in June 2019 was invalid and that the police search and seizure of data from her phone and laptop were unlawful.
The raid sought to identify sources of a report published by Smethurst in April 2018 alleging that the government was planning to expand its powers to spy on Australian citizens.
A day afterwards, police also raided the Sydney headquarters of public broadcaster ABC, trying to track down another whistle-blower linked to ABC reporting on alleged war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan, triggered a storm of criticism by the media and civil rights groups.
The police insisted the raid, based on a 1914 law meant to counter World War I-era German espionage, was justified.
After a legal challenge to the warrant’s validity, a seven-judge bench of the country’s highest court said the document should be quashed since it did not spell out the suspected offence “with sufficient precision” and misstated the relevant law.
The ABC has launched separate legal challenges to the raid on its headquarters.
However, the judges were split on whether police should return a seized USB stick with information from Smethurst’s smartphone, with only three saying the law enforcement agency should do so.
The mixed ruling brought cautious support from press freedom advocates, who welcomed the hurdle to police seizing information given to a reporter in confidence. But they noted the technical grounds for the decision.
“The raid was an attack on the public’s right to know what our governments do in our name,” said Marcus Strom, federal president of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which represents journalists.
“The warrant has been quashed on a technicality, but the powers that enabled the raid remain,” he added in a statement.
Peter Greste, an Australian journalist who has become a press freedom advocate after being imprisoned in Eygpt, said in a tweet that the High Court had given “a technical ruling that said the AFP messed up writing the search warrant”.
“The court did not address press freedom issues. The judgment underscores once again the need for robust protection for press freedom in Australian law,” Greste’s tweet said.
Unlike many western countries, Australia does not have a bill of rights or a constitutionally enshrined protection for freedom of speech, or laws to protect government whistleblowers.
The AFP news agency said in a statement that it would consider and act in accordance with the High Court ruling but declined to comment further.