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New threats to journalists' sources as police secretly access reporter's telephone records

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the Northern Territory police for secretly accessing the telephone records of Darwin-based reporter Justin O'Brien in an attempt to identify a confidential source, and for threatening legal action against him.

The press freedom organization expresses its full support for O'Brien and his newspaper, the "Northern Territory News", and shares his concern that the police had access to sources and materials beyond the particular items targeted.

The police launched their investigation in an attempt to identify O'Brien's source for a "Northern Territory News" report about a police raid on the home of Darwin mayor Graeme Sawyer.

Police in the state of Victoria admitted a similar intrusion into "Herald Sun" journalists' phone records in September 2010.

RSF said it was ironic that the police were behaving in this manner at the very time that the Australian parliament was moving to amend the Evidence Act so as to offer journalists some protection for the confidentiality of their sources.

"We reject this sort of police infringement into media freedom in democracies such as Australia," RSF secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said. "Journalists perform an important Fourth Estate role in society and find their role compromised if confidential sources are intimidated by such actions."

"I am not going to be revealing my source," O'Brien told RSF. "I am willing to take the stand and say I will not reveal my source. I haven't committed an offence and they have accessed my phone records to try to find out my sources. There is no guarantee of the length of time they have been looking back."

O'Brien said he had done several stories relating to immigration detention centres and other matters with confidential sources used as contacts.

"Northern Territory News" deputy editor Matt Cunningham said the newspaper planned to file a complaint about the police actions with the Northern Territory ombudsman.

RSF is especially alarmed by comments made by Northern Territory police commissioner John McRoberts to ABC Radio on 9 November, when he implied that the reporter might have committed an offence simply by receiving information from a police whistleblower.

"Such comments appear to be a classic case of 'shooting the messenger', which is all the more disturbing when it comes from a senior police officer," Julliard said. The organization calls on all the state and territory governments in Australia to implement similar protection for journalists' confidential sources to that proposed at the national level.

Click here to access a "Northern Territory News" report on the O'Brien case
To read about the "Herald Sun" incident, click here

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