A case over the validity of police warrants used to raid the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters last year has been dismissed by the Federal Court of Australia.
In June 2019, Australian Federal Police officers searched ABC computer systems for files linked to a series of 2017 reports known as The Afghan Files.
The reports covered allegations of unlawful killings by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
The ABC launched a challenge to the validity of the warrant, arguing it was “legally unreasonable” and included search terms which failed to create any meaningful limitation on the scope.
On Monday morning, Federal Court Justice Wendy Abraham dismissed the case and ordered the ABC to pay the costs of the other parties.
The Afghan Files, by investigative journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, were based on leaked Defence documents.
A whistleblower involved in the stories has, separately, faced legal proceedings.
In a statement, the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, said the raid was “an attempt to intimidate journalists for doing their jobs”.
“This is at odds with our expectation that we live in an open and transparent society,” he said.
“We are not saying journalists should be above the law, we’re saying the public’s right to know should be a factor that is taken into account — and legitimate journalism should not be criminalised.”
The ABC argued the case on several grounds, but named the registrar who issued the warrant as the first respondent.
It argued the decision to approve the warrant was not authorised under the Crimes Act, having regard to the implied freedom of political communication.
Further, the ABC argued the warrant itself was too broad and included terms which failed to provide any meaningful limitation on its scope.
The ABC sought a declaration that the warrant was invalid.
In October, ABC solicitor Michael Rippon told the court the warrant’s terms included very general words such as “secret”.
The court heard the AFP’s executing officer told Mr Rippon, in the lead up to the raids, that he wanted them carried out in a fashion “amenable” to all parties.
Mr Rippon also recalled words to the effect of “we don’t want any sensationalist headlines like ‘AFP raids the ABC’ “.
The material seized included 124 files on two USB sticks, some which were duplicates.
The AFP has previously given the court an undertaking that the material will remain sealed until the legal proceedings have been resolved.
The ABC had also sought an immediate injunction to return the seized material and prevent any part from accessing or copying it.
ABC head of investigative journalism John Lyons said the decision was disappointing.
“It is a bad day for Australian journalism,” he said.
“After 18 months, we still have two journalists that face possible criminal charges.
“I contrast this to Angus Taylor and what the AFP’s treatment of him was, that case was over within weeks.”
ABC news director Gaven Morris described the ruling as “a blow to the way Australians have access to information in their society and their democracy”.
“Urgent law reform is clearly required and all the way through this process, it’s clear that the way that journalists go about doing their role, the way public interest journalism is able to be undertaken in this country is a mess.”