Revealed: Federal Police forestall Media under Crimes Act.

Yesterday morning it was revealed that journalists who have reported on the federal government’s asylum seeker operations have been repeatedly referred to the Australian federal police. The referrals are purportedly intended to avoid “the unauthorised disclosure of commonwealth information” in relation to the government’s asylum seeker operations and immigration policies.

Nick Butterly of the West Australian has reportedly been referred twice, both times in relation to his stories regarding asylum seeker vessels. He was referred by Michael Pezzullo, head of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Services, on the grounds that “[many] of the claims may have drawn upon classified information” which he cited in a letter obtained by The Guardian Australia in February 2014.

These revelations come just months after the government passed a bill that made it possible to sentence journalists for up to 10 years for disclosing information either about the existence, or activities conducted within, of “special intelligence operations”. The disclosure of such information is said to have the potential to harm participants or the operation itself due to the high terror threat placed upon Australia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has backed these new anti-terror measures stating “regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift”.

The federal government is not showing any regret in the silencing of reports and information that could potentially jeopardise their covert operations, especially in regards to the treatment and detainment of asylum seekers. This has been uncovered specifically in the third referral by the defence department on December 9th 2013. An article by an online news site revealed an Australian patrol boat had sunk an asylum seeker boat, yet this was said to “[constitute] a potential breach of operational security and potentially the commission of a criminal offence under the Commonwealth Crimes Act” by an officer from the defence security authority.

Knowledge about the referrals, and their accompanying documentation was revealed in conjunction with the freedom of information law. The FOI requests were made to both Customs and the AFP, with the intent to disclose every instance in which the federal police investigated the unauthorised dissemination of information under the Crimes Act. It is under this section of the Crimes Act that persons can be prosecuted for divulging sensitive and unauthorised information involved within government operations or policies.

Paul Murphy, chief executive officer of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance revealed to the Guardian Australia that prosecution, or attempted prosecution of sources greatly undermined legitimate reporting.

With major contention already established in regards to the prevention of journalistic access to detention centres such as Manus Island, the frequency of referrals have many feeling that this is a potential infringement upon press freedoms.

“Rather than moving in line with recommendations we’ve made or the ALRC made, the disturbing thing is that the government is moving in the opposite direction to further criminalise public interest disclosures” Paul Murphy has said.