SYDNEY, Australia — The Australian authorities on Tuesday searched the home, computer and cellphone of a journalist who wrote an article last year detailing top-secret correspondence between government ministries over a plan to allow intelligence agencies to surveil Australian citizens.
The journalist, Annika Smethurst, the political editor for The Sunday Telegraph, a Sydney tabloid that is one of Australia’s most-read newspapers, was in her home in Canberra, the capital, on Tuesday morning when Australian Federal Police officers arrived with a warrant to search her house and belongings.
The police said in a statement that the warrant was related “to the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret, which is an extremely serious matter that has the potential to undermine Australia’s national security.” The police added that no arrests were “expected today as a result of this activity.”
It was believed to be the first such action against an Australian journalist in more than a decade. The Australian union for journalists, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, called the raid “an outrageous attack on press freedom.”
“Australians are entitled to know what their governments do in their name,” the union’s president, Marcus Strom, said in a statement. “That clearly includes plans by government agencies to digitally spy on Australians by hacking into our emails, bank accounts and text messages.”
It is against the law in Australia for government officials to disclose classified or secret information. That allows the police to investigate leaks to journalists.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp. Australia, the parent company of The Sunday Telegraph, said that Ms. Smethurst had complied with the warrant. News Corp. called the raid “outrageous and heavy handed.”
“This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths,” the company said in a statement. “What’s gone on this morning sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia. This will chill public interest reporting.”
In April 2018, Ms. Smethurst reported that a top-secret proposal to expand the powers of the Australian Signals Directorate, the equivalent of the National Security Agency in the United States, was to be submitted for ministerial approval. She wrote that the proposal would allow “cyber spooks to target onshore threats without the country’s top law officer knowing.”
In the article, she quoted Mike Pezzullo, then the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, as advocating “further legislative reform” to help law enforcement agencies combat “online, cybercrime and cyber-enabled criminal threats facing Australia.”
Under current law, the signals directorate cannot gather intelligence on Australian citizens. But the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the country’s domestic spy agency, have the power to do so with a warrant. They can also turn to the signals directorate for technical guidance.
Since the article was published, there has been no formal government proposal for legislative amendments on the issue.
While the police are allowed to investigate leaks to journalists, members of the media do have some recourse. Legislation passed in recent years gives journalists protection from having to disclose their sources. But courts can decide that the public interest in learning the identities of sources outweighs any adverse effect of disclosure.