SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s High Court ruled on Wednesday that a warrant used by police to search a journalist’s home was invalid but declined to order seized material destroyed, a setback for investigators that received qualified praise from press freedom advocates.
A raid on the Canberra home of News Corp editor Annika Smethurst last year, one of two Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on the media within a week, caused a firestorm of criticism by the country’s media chiefs, although law enforcement authorities said the searches were justified.
The Smethurst raid, which involved officers sifting through her clothes drawers, according to media reports, followed a Sunday Telegraph article that said intelligence agencies wanted to carry out surveillance by accessing people’s emails, bank accounts and text messages.
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.
However, the judges were split on whether the AFP should return a seized USB stick with information from her 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.
The AFP said in a statement that it would consider and act in accordance with the High Court ruling but declined to comment further.
Reporting by Byron Kaye. Editing by Gerry Doyle