A second front? After the government declared war on the tech industry in general and encryption in particular, it seems that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) may have opened up a second front, and this time it has the fourth estate firmly in its sights.

On Tuesday, the AFPraided

the home of News Corp political journalist

Annika Smethurrrst, and by doing so has sent shockwaves through the media establishment.

The police probe relates to an

article

she had published in April 2018, quoting government sources suggesting that the

Australian Signals Directorate

would potentially be granted the right to spy on Australian citizens and would be allowed to hack into critical infrastructure as well. If this were to happen, it would represent a major change to the agencies’ remit as thus far it is responsible for collecting intelligence on foreign targets only. Even though the allegations levelled against some officials were dismissed by senior ministers at the time, the government seems to have been seriously rattled by Smethurst’s reporting. Indeed, recent

police actions

may point to a broader assault on the media, since offices of Australia’s

public broadcaster

were searched just one day after the raid on Smethurst’s home. Since the assault on the ABC is apparently connected to the

Afghan Files, police claims that the two investigations are not at all related. The timing of these raids makes this claim outright laughable, and what is potentially even more concerning is that all these measures have been taken just days after the reelection of the Morrison government. Not surprisingly, ministers try to

wash

their hands clean of these investigations, with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and

Attorney-General Christian Porter suddenly discovering the virtue of judicial independence,

claiming

that they had no prior knowledge of the raid. Even if this is true, however, both men are responsible for developing a legal framework and nurturing a political climate in which journalists now put themselves in genuine danger when reporting on matters of public interest. After Morrison’s election win more than a fortnight ago, this is unlikely to change any time soon. He made it

clear

that he has full confidence in the police, stating that all Australians must abide by the law. However, being the political pro he is, the Prime Minister kept his options open in case things go wrong by not wanting to be drawn on whether or not the actions taken by the AFP may have been excessive. These politically refined remarks must not be overlooked, since they afford him and his ministers a political fallback position in the future. In the meantime, political pressure is mounting on the government, with Senator

Rex Patrick

making it plain that he will pursue the matter in the Senate and wants answers to a number of questions. Most importantly perhaps, he is puzzled by the timing and wonders, rightly, why the AFP has chosen to go down this particular route rather than trying to secure a

journalist information warrant; as Senator Patrick knows full well of course, the answer is quite simple and straightforward. Obtaining such a warrant would have been much more difficult for the police. After all, it is fairly obvious that Smethurst’s reporting was on a matter of public interest, and this would have made it hard if not impossible for the AFP to secure such a warrant. The legal technicalities involved here are complicated, but recent developments in Australia are not at all surprising. For those of us who have been

observing

policy making on national security in the country, current developments are its natural consequence. The assault on the media and Australia’s unique laws on

encryption

may not be directly related on the surface, but they are two sides of the same coin. Civil society in Western democracies must pay close attention to what is happening down-under because other governments will try to

follow

the Australian example. Admittedly, it is a worst-case scenario, but if push comes to shove one day, the democratic process as a whole might be rendered null and void by a government using an infrastructure of surveillance to control and manipulate its own citizens. The Australian example offers no way forward. In a place where the police is running amok, ministers profess ignorance and the public is weary and uncertain, the time has come to assign a proper name to it; it’s called the lucky country.

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