Reporter goes to Australian High Court in press freedom case

CANBERRA, Australia — A journalist went to Australia’s highest court on Tuesday to overturn a search warrant that created outrage when it was executed on her home and triggered a national campaign for greater press freedom.

Rival Australian media businesses banded together to fight for press freedom after police raided the Canberra home of News Corp. journalist Annika Smethurst and the Sydney headquarters of Australian Broadcasting Corp. on consecutive days in June in search of leaked government documents that had formed the basis of news reports embarrassing to the government.

Smethurst’s lawyers argued in the High Court that the warrant used by police to take data from her phone should be quashed.

The lawyers want the seven judges to rule that the warrant was invalid because it either misstated or did not precisely state the criminal offence Smethurst was suspected of. They also argue police had infringed on Smethurst’s constitutional right to freedom of political communication.

The hearing continues on Wednesday.

It’s unknown what police copied from her phone, or what information the magistrate who issued the warrant was provided with in order to give his approval.

Smethurst’s lawyer Stephen Lloyd said if the warrant was invalid, then police were trespassing at the journalist’s house and in her phone.

Government lawyer Stephen Donaghue argued the warrant didn’t need to provide specific details about the offence.

Even if the material was seized unlawfully, the government argues police should be allowed to keep it. If Smethurst were charged, a trial judge should determine whether the data was admissible as evidence, it says.

Australian media organizations argue that press freedoms have been eroded by more than 70 counterterrorism and security laws that have been passed by Parliament since the al-Qaida attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

They want assurance that journalists will not risk prison sentences for doing their jobs.

The government responded by asking a parliamentary committee to hold an inquiry into the impact of Australian law enforcement and intelligence powers on press freedom.

The Associated Press