In October 2004, government ministers in the then newly-independent Timor-Leste met to discuss undersea oil and gas deposits shared with Australia.
The Timor Sea petroleum fields are the only significant source of income for Timor-Leste, one of the poorest countries in the entire Asia-Pacific region.
The tiny nation desperately needed a fair outcome from negotiations over the revenue split with its wealthy southern neighbour.
Most Timorese are subsistence farmers and their 2004 harvests were diminished by severe drought. Amid reports of rural starvation, ministers met in the Palácio do Governo, a whitewashed, two-storey, Portuguese colonial building in the capital, Dili.
The building’s cabinet room had just been renovated under an Australian government aid program. The room overlooked Dili harbour in sight of the Central Maritime floating hotel, which accommodated expatriates and foreign businessmen.
As the invited ministers met to hear a highly confidential briefing from Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and Secretary of State Jose Teixeira they had no idea that Australian spies aboard the Central Maritime were listening to their every word.
The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) had bugged the cabinet room under the cover of the renovations. Recordings of cabinet discussions went to the Australian embassy and Canberra.
Today, the 16-year-old bugging operation is at the centre of one of several criminal prosecutions related to whistleblowers underway in Australia.
The prosecutions take place under so-called national security laws recently enacted to “shield governments from embarrassment” and punish and deter whistleblowers who expose official wrongdoing, according to Australia’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
“These laws seek to muzzle the media and criminalise legitimate journalism,” said MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy.
The Timor Sea petroleum deposits known as Greater Sunrise are much closer to Timor-Leste than Australia. Nevertheless, the 2004 negotiations delivered a highly favourable outcome to Australia and Woodside Energy, the Australian operator.
The man who ordered the illegal bugging of the cabinet room, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, later took a lucrative consultancy job with Woodside. Downer’s departmental secretary, Ashton Calvert became a director at Woodside.
The bugging operation would have remained secret without the courage of a senior ASIS officer turned whistleblower. Known only as Witness K, he reportedly objected to intelligence assets being diverted to a commercially-motivated operation at a time when Australia’s counter-terrorism resources were stretched in response to bomb attacks on Western targets in Indonesia.
The spying operation was publicly revealed by The Australian newspaper and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) in 2012. The news led Timor-Leste to take Australia to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in order to get the petroleum treaties annulled.
Witness K (identifying him would be a crime) was about to travel to The Hague to give evidence about the bugging operation when Australian intelligence officers raided his home and seized his passport in 2012. They also raided and seized documents from the office of Canberra-based lawyer, Bernard Collaery, who acted for the government of Timor-Leste and Witness K.
Mediation overseen by the Permanent Court of Arbitration eventually led to a much more favourable revenue split for the Timorese. But in 2018, Witness K and Collaery were charged with illegally disclosing information in breach of the Intelligence Services Act. Instead of receiving praise for his efforts to reveal wrongdoing, Collaery was accused of unlawfully communicating intelligence secrets to journalists. Both faced the possibility of jail if convicted.
Australian Senator Rex Patrick underlined the immorality of the Australian government’s actions.
“The bottom line here is that Downer (and Woodside) wanted to force East Timor, one of the poorest countries in the world, to surrender most of the revenues from Greater Sunrise, revenue it could have used to deal with its infant mortality rate – currently 45 out of 1,000 children in East Timor don’t live past the age of one,” Patrick told parliament. “And yet our plan was to deprive them of oil revenue.”
After six years of intense pressure, Witness K agreed to plead guilty in late 2019. Lawyer Collaery continues to face a mostly-secret trial.
Meanwhile, the Australian government is prosecuting Richard Boyle, who exposed misconduct by his employer, the Australian Tax Office.
Boyle’s information prompted a joint investigation by the Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers and the ABC and resulted in a parliamentary committee recommending major reforms to the Tax Office. Despite this, Boyle faces a total of 161 years in prison.
Also in the government’s sights is David McBride, a military lawyer who leaked documents detailing alleged war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan to ABC journalists.
The accuracy of the documents, which revealed incidents of troops killing unarmed men and children, has never been disputed, yet McBride faces 50 years imprisonment.
The ABC’s publication of the leaked information led to a raid on its Sydney headquarters by armed federal police in 2019.
They came with a warrant to “add, copy, delete or alter” material in the ABC’s computers. A court upheld the warrant’s validity despite its wide scope.
The ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, said the raid was “an attempt to intimidate journalists for doing their jobs” and further evidence of the need for explicit protections for public interest journalism and for whistleblowers.
“Australia has by far the most onerous secrecy laws of any comparable western democracy – the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand,” Anderson added.
According to George Williams, Dean of Law at the University of New South Wales, the Australian parliament has passed at least 82 national security laws – one every three months – since the 9/11 terror attacks on the US in 2001.
Parliament approved the laws with what Williams called “convenient bipartisanship” between the major political parties. “We have developed a reputation for enacting security laws more suited to an authoritarian state than a liberal democracy,” he said.
It is therefore no surprise that Australia ranked 26th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index — down five places from last year.
The Index published by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders identified a lack of constitutional protection of press freedom, the Federal Police raids on the national broadcaster and a raid on the home of a News Corp journalist, among other factors.
The most infamous persecution of an Australian media figure is happening in London, where Julian Assange awaits extradition to the United States and potentially a life in prison.
The British and Australian governments have ignored appeals from the MEAA and many others urging them to oppose his extradition to the US to face a politically motivated trial.
In 2011, Assange received an award from Australia’s Walkley Foundation for excellence in Australian journalism.
“The judgement was not made lightly that Julian Assange was acting as a journalist, applying new technology to ‘penetrate the inner workings of government to reveal an avalanche of inconvenient truths in a global publishing coup’,” veteran journalist Kerry O’ Brien, the foundation’s chairman said in a speech in November.
O’Brien deplored the Australian government’s failure to respond to media appeals for laws that protect “a free and robust press”.
“Authoritarianism unchecked can lead to fascism,” he warned. “Fortunately in this country we’re a long way from that yet, but a study of history amply demonstrates how fascism begins.
“Freedom is usually eroded gradually. It might happen over years, even decades. Its loss is not necessarily felt day by day, but we will certainly know when it’s gone.”