CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA (AP) — Australia’s suppression of information seen as pivotal to a free and open media is at the centre of accusations that the country has become one of the world’s most secretive democracies.
Last week, a former Australian spy was convicted over his unconfirmed role as a whistleblower who revealed an espionage operation against the government of East Timor.
It’s the latest high-profile case in a national system in which secrecy laws, some dating back to the colonial era, are routinely used to suppress information. Police have also threatened to charge journalists who exposed war crime allegations against Australian special forces in Afghanistan, or bureaucrats’ plan to allow an intelligence agency to spy on Australian citizens.
Australians don’t even know the name of the former spy convicted on Friday. The Canberra court registry listed him as ‘Witness K’. His lawyer referred to him more respectfully as ‘Mr K’ in court.
K spent the two-day hearing in a box constructed from black screens to hide his identity. The public and media were sent out of the courtroom when classified evidence was discussed, which was about half the time.
The only sign that anyone was actually inside the box was when a voice said “guilty” after K was asked how he plead.
The Australian government has refused to comment on allegations that K led an Australian Secret Intelligence Service operation that bugged government offices in the East Timorese capital in 2004, during negotiations on the sharing of oil and gas revenue from the seabed that separates the two countries.
The government cancelled K’s passport before he was to testify at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2014 in support of the East Timorese, who argued the treaty was invalid because Australia failed to negotiate in good faith by engaging in espionage.
There was no evidence heard in open court of a bugging operation, which media reported was conducted under the guise of a foreign aid programme.
K was given a three-month suspended sentence. If he’d been sent to prison, there were court orders designed to conceal his former espionage career by restricting what he could tell friends and associates to explain his predicament.
He had faced up to two years in prison. Since his offence, Australia has continued to tighten controls on secrecy, increasing the maximum sentence to 10 years.