Outside the Australian Federal Police (AFP) headquarters in Canberra. Picture: AAP / Lukas Coch.
Outside the Australian Federal Police (AFP) headquarters in Canberra. Picture: AAP / Lukas Coch.

AFP whistleblowers: ‘We’re ‘next’

"Please delete all of our correspondence," a message from an Australian Federal Police officer to news.com.au reads.

It's one of several messages this week sent to our newsroom from AFP whistleblowers who have contacted us to report widespread mental health issues within the organisation and a disturbing internal bullying culture over the past two years.

Many of the almost 100 past and present sworn members who came forward claimed the toxic culture had culminated in four workplace suicides in less than two years and warned that more deaths were inevitable.

But some of those who spoke out are now fearful that they will be identified and reprimanded

under the Australian Federal Police Act. 1979 in the event of another raid on major news organisations. While Australian whistleblowers can apply to be protected under the Corporations Act, the legislation is narrowly drafted and has subsequently come under intense scrutiny.

"We're next," one AFP member wrote to news.com.au this week.

"Please delete everything - I have."

Another said: "(George) Orwell's 1984 (a dystopian novel about the risks of government overreach, totalitarianism and repressive regimentation) is real, sadly".

"I didn't serve and fight for this," the message continued.

The sentiment has further highlighted the level of secrecy and fear within the organisation felt even by those who have spoken out about internal issues not deemed to be official secrets.

It comes after the AFP this week raided a News Corp journalist's Canberra home and the ABC's Sydney headquarters to investigate sources of confidential information published by the outlets.

Federal police officers raid the home of News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst over a story about a secret government plan to spy on Australians.
Federal police officers raid the home of News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst over a story about a secret government plan to spy on Australians.

 

Annika Smethurst, the political editor for News Corp Sunday titles including The Sunday Telegraph, was at home preparing to leave for work when several Australian Federal Police officers arrived with a warrant to search her home, computer and mobile phone.
Annika Smethurst, the political editor for News Corp Sunday titles including The Sunday Telegraph, was at home preparing to leave for work when several Australian Federal Police officers arrived with a warrant to search her home, computer and mobile phone.


Following backlash over the raids, the AFP abandoned a separate investigation into who leaked classified national security advice at the height of a major political dispute over border protection. AFP acting Commissioner Neil Gaughan told reporters there could be more raids on newsrooms in future as part of the ongoing investigations.

The raids have prompted major media organisations to rally together to fight for press freedom, which many now view as being under threat, in a united front rarely seen in Australia.

But it's not the first time that the AFP has been accused of overreaching - from inside and outside the organisation - in recent years. In the most high profile cases - which involved the Bali Nine, Schapelle Corby, and an unidentified journalist - the agency has even been forced to apologise. And in the worst, AFP members have taken their own lives.

'HUMAN ERROR'

In April last year, it was revealed an AFP investigator was responsible for a breach by illegally accessing a journalist's phone records.

AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin told reporters the phone records were obtained by the agency illegally and accessed that same year during an investigation into a leak of confidential police material. He said the breach was a result of "human error" and that all illegally retrieved materials had since been destroyed. He apologised for the incident on behalf of the organisation.

Under the Telecommunications Interceptions Act, a warrant must be obtained in order to access a journalist's private information. But on this occasion that did not occur.

According to Mr Colvin, the journalist involved was not notified, as the investigation into the leak of their private information was still ongoing. The AFP previously refused to respond to questions from news.com.au about what action, if any, was taken against the person(s) responsible for the metadata breach.

AFP BLAMED FOR BALI NINE EXECUTIONS

The AFP was blamed for making an error in judgment which some say led to the deaths of Australian drug traffickers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan - who were executed by Indonesian authorities in 2015.

The organisation was criticised for not arresting the pair before they left Australia with illegal drugs, instead tipping off Indonesia and exposing the ringleaders to the death penalty.

"At the time we were working with a very incomplete picture. We didn't know everybody involved, we didn't know all the plans, or even what the illicit commodity was likely to be," Mr Colvin later said.

"We were not in a position to arrest any members of the Bali Nine prior to their departure from Australia."

Australians Myuran Sukumaran (right) and Andrew Chan (left) were executed in Indonesia. Picture: AP/Firdia Lisnawati.
Australians Myuran Sukumaran (right) and Andrew Chan (left) were executed in Indonesia. Picture: AP/Firdia Lisnawati.

He said it was "operationally appropriate" for the AFP to then co-operate with, and seek help from Indonesia.

In 2006, the Federal Court cleared the AFP of any wrongdoing.

AFP FORCED TO APOLOGISE TO CH 7

In 2014, the AFP was forced to issue a formal apology to Channel 7 after the Federal Court quashed warrants obtained by the organisation during its Schapelle Corby proceeds of crime investigation.

It came after AFP officers were deployed to execute a raid on the station's headquarters in Sydney when false claims emerged the network had paid the convicted drug smuggler for an interview when she was granted parole.

Schapelle Corby leaves the parole office before being deported from Bali, Indonesia. Picture: Supplied
Schapelle Corby leaves the parole office before being deported from Bali, Indonesia. Picture: Supplied

 

Schapelle Corby’s visit to parole board for her monthly report in 2014.
Schapelle Corby’s visit to parole board for her monthly report in 2014.

In a letter sent to Seven West Media Chairman Kerry Stokes, then-AFP Commissioner Tony Negus stated the AFP "unreservedly apologises … for the unnecessary reputational damage to Seven".

"Neither Seven, nor its employees, offices or lawyers, were ever suspected of a criminal offence, nor were they the subject of any criminal investigation in connection with the Corby matter," it read.

With Corby ordered not to give any interviews - or risk being returned to jail - by Indonesian justice officials, no interview actually took place between her and late Australian journalist Mike Willesee.

Willesee and Sunday Night producer Andy Byrne negotiated exclusive access to the convicted drug smuggler's first days of freedom - capturing extraordinary vision of her throwing herself into the ocean off Seminyak in Bali.

Mercedes Corby eventually gave an interview to the program about how her sister was affected by almost 10 years inside Kerobokan prison.

No payment was exchanged for the TV interview and the AFP investigation was dropped.

AFP WORKPLACE SUICIDES

The AFP has been fighting some of its biggest battles internally.

Four officers have taken their own lives in the AFP's Melbourne and Canberra headquarters in less than two years amid an ongoing cultural crisis within the organisation. The most recent death was that of agent Samantha Baglin, 44, whose body was found inside the Canberra headquarters in December last year.

Since 2017, almost 100 past and present AFP agents have contacted news.com.au to report a severe mismanagement of mental health issues and a disturbing internal bullying culture within the organisation.

An independent police advocacy spokesman, who asked not to be named, told news.com.au he was concerned officers might be trying to send a message by taking their lives in the workplace.

AFP agent Samantha Baglin died in December 2018.
AFP agent Samantha Baglin died in December 2018.

 

AFP agent Samantha Baglin.
AFP agent Samantha Baglin.

One AFP source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, previously told news.com.au that the organisation "needs intense scrutiny that the agencies can't cover up".

"We have an expression in our job: TJF - this job's f***ed," the source said.

"Morale is in the toilet. We know we have no support and no backing from most of the management."

Whistleblowers who are now concerned about further AFP raids on newsrooms across Australia may have good reason to be wary.

In 2017, the AFP identified one of the whistleblowers who spoke to news.com.au as NSW-based crash investigator Kylie Walls and launched an official 'Professional Standards Investigation' into her conduct.

But in a stunning kneejerk response issued just hours after being contacted by news.com.au, an AFP spokesman said the probe would now be "discontinued".

"As a result of AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin becoming aware of a suggestion that professional standards matters were underway following your media inquiry - and in consultation between the Commissioner and the appropriate Assistant Commissioner - any Professional Standards inquiries relating to the matters you refer to have been discontinued," an AFP statement to news.com.au read.

It was a dramatic change of tune from the AFP who had been "going hard" on Ms Walls prior to further media scrutiny.

In documents obtained by news.com.au, the AFP warned the senior constable that she risked six months to two years' jail time if she didn't fully comply with investigators' requests and demands as per a "direction to furnish information".

It claimed she had "seriously breached" several sections of the AFP Code and Conduct by not submitting an "Integrity Report" or "Security Incident Report … in relation to her declarable association with a media representative". The AFP also accused Ms Walls of "seriously breach(ing)" the Australian Federal Police Commissioner's Order on Professional Standards - a sackable offence - "when she divulged information to (news.com.au journalist) Megan Palin".

Editorial Director of the ABC Craig McMurtie speaks to members of the media outside the ABC building located at Ultimo in Sydney, Wednesday, June 5, 2019. Picture: AAP/David Gray.
Editorial Director of the ABC Craig McMurtie speaks to members of the media outside the ABC building located at Ultimo in Sydney, Wednesday, June 5, 2019. Picture: AAP/David Gray.

When the investigation was in full swing, Ms Walls was interrogated in a meeting by the AFP about any comments she had made publicly regarding its bullying culture and mental health crisis. News.com.au understands Ms Walls was instructed by an investigator to hand over all of her correspondence with media relating to the matter.

Documents obtained by news.com.au show the AFP instructed Ms Walls she "must not discuss this investigation or anything relating to it with any AFP appointee or any other person unless the communication is approved by PRS", as outlined in the legislation.

At the time, the AFP did not respond to questions from news.com.au about whether or not any other whistleblowers were under investigation or if legal action had been taken against them.

In a statement issued today to news.com.au, an AFP spokesperson said that the organisation "does not initiate investigations as pay back to current or former AFP appointees for talking to the media about their personal experiences, and rejects any assertion otherwise".

"The AFP approached individuals to offer support and assistance following the publication of articles earlier this year that raised concerns about the welfare and support available to AFP members," the statement read.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin appears at a Senate estimates hearing at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, October 22, 2018. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin appears at a Senate estimates hearing at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, October 22, 2018. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas.

The spokesperson said the organisation's Professional Standards process was "subject to external oversight by the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Ombudsman and corruption matters are subject to oversight by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity".

AFPA president Angela Smith said the matters raised by the whistleblowers, including Ms Walls, were of "significant public interest" and that members had gone public because they were "at their wits end".

In a second statement, an AFP spokesman said the commissioner had "made it clear that the health and wellbeing of our people is his and the organisation's highest priority".

"The AFP does not attempt to play down, or cover up reports of PTSD or mental health issues within the organisation," the statement read.

If you or someone you know needs help call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636

For more information on how to support others who might need help and what warning signs to look for, visit: Conversations Matter.

megan.palin@news.com.au | @Megan_Palin



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