Sorry, the easy days of investigative journalism are over

Recent days provided a bounty of unfortunate news hooks for our latest Walkley Media Talk on press freedom, like the detention of ABC’s Four Corners crew in Malaysia. Wendy Bacon, Paul Farrell and Alex Hearne helped us sort it all out: notes below from the Walkleys’ Kate Golden.

Oh for the halcyon days when a muckraker like Wendy Bacon could just pick up a load of secret documents and carry them back on a plane.

“In many ways, those were the easy days,” she said.

Now the skillset has changed — and so have the risks to both reporters and their sources, said Bacon, moderating a Walkley Media Talk last week on press freedom issues at the State Library of New South Wales with Guardian reporter Paul Farrell and Alex Hearne of the International Federation of Journalists.

Exhibit A is Farrell, who has become Australia’s best example of state surveillance of journalism.

The day of our Walkley Media Talk, the Guardian revealed that the Australian Federal Police acknowledged seeking Farrell’s metadata without a warrant.

That’s on the heels of revelations from Farrell’s own police case file that the AFP had a 200-plus-page investigative file on him. (The agency sought to uncover his sources on a story about Australian incursions into Indonesian waters.)

It was an acute reminder of the threats to press freedom in Australia. The risks here are not those of the Philippines, where journalists’ murderers have apparent impunity. They are instead quiet and insidious.

Paul Farrell recently became the poster boy for state surveillance of journalists. Kate Golden/Walkleys

Paul Farrell recently became the poster boy for state surveillance of journalists. Kate Golden/Walkleys

“I really do wonder how many times this sort of thing has happened,” Farrell said.

Some highlights from the talk:

The Australian Border Force Act’s unintended consequences. The 2015 law cracked down on leaks about offshore detention centers, but “I think it really had the opposite effect,” causing some people to speak out, Farrell said.

“People are going to cross that line when they realise that what they’re seeing is not right,” he said.

The Panama Papers, a rare success. Farrell called the massive investigation of offshore financial accounts “a success in a field with far fewer successes” of late. The structure of the investigation made it harder for governments to suppress — both because it was distributed across a network of reporters worldwide, and because it was based in the United States, which has strong press protections.

“It would be much harder to have run this investigation out of Australia,” Farrell said, given defamation and other laws here.

Asia-Pacific risks. The standout worst in the region is the Philippines, which has also seen the second-most deaths worldwide over the past quarter-century, said Hearne. That includes the single deadliest day for journalists, the Ampatuan Massacre, in which 32 journalists or media workers in a convoy were killed.

In some ways, the country has greater press freedom than others — but “the statistics kind of speak for themselves”: 42 journalists have been killed since the massacre, and no one has been convicted for these murders.

Protecting sources has gotten complicated. “Sources are as important as the journalists,” Bacon said.

But doing so requires extra technology. The Guardian has a system called SecureDrop for people to provide documents safely using Tor file-sharing software. Encrypting email is worthwhile but still clunky. And Farrell recommended journalists download Signal, an app to that sends encrypted communications. It doesn’t eliminate risks completely but provides “a degree of comfort”.

You can do all that. But then what do you do when a whistleblower calls over a regular phone line? The existence of the call is recorded as metadata. That alone could out them. The ethical option, Farrell and Bacon said, may be to refuse the story.

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Editor’s note: If all this riles you up, here’s what you can do to support press freedom in Australia and abroad right now.

  1. Buy tickets to the May 6 Press Freedom Australia Dinner, which raises money for the Media Safety and Solidarity Fund — it supports the children of journalists who have been slain doing their jobs.
  2. Donate directly to the fund via MEAA’s website.
  3. Buy raffle tickets for the dinner through any MEAA member journalist (we mailed them across Australia a few weeks ago). The prizes are fabulous.

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About the panelists: Moderator Wendy Bacon is a longtime University of Technology Sydney journalism professor, honorary professor at the Australian Center for Independent Journalism, investigative reporter and activist. Panelist Paul Farrell covers immigration detention, surveillance and national security for Guardian Australia, while Alex Hearne monitors human rights violations in the Asia-Pacific region for the International Federation of Journalists.

Kate Golden is the Walkleys’ multimedia manager.