Standing in a car park outside an office I use in Perth, I was handed two documents by the State Security detective in front of me. He talked me through them politely and precisely and asked whether he could advise my lawyer that he had just served me. If I had any further questions, he assured me I could reach out to him directly. “However,” he added, “it is an offence not to comply.”
As those court orders have now expired, and I have not given police access to the passwords for my laptop and phone, I expect to face criminal charges. Data access orders such as these are a new tactic from authorities, and represent a new front in legal attempts to defend civil liberties in the face of a national clampdown. It is part of a larger shift in how police in Western Australia are dealing with climate protesters and, now, journalists.
A week earlier, I was detained for eight hours by police investigating an attempt to evacuate the annual general meeting of Woodside Energy in Perth. After I spoke with other media reporting on protests outside the convention centre, I was arrested by detectives who subsequently searched my home office and seized my devices.
As I waited for the search to end, one officer offered to buy me takeaway from Nando’s. “You won’t be saying ‘no comment’ when you’re choosing between mild peri-peri sauce and hot and spicy,” he said.
The irony wasn’t lost on me: as police went through my office and my notebooks, which, like my electronics, contain confidential material relating to a range of sensitive sources and stories on which I have recently worked, a piece I had written for this newspaper about a crackdown on Woodside protesters and “pre-emptive policing” was going to print.
At almost the same time, police to the north of Perth were harassing a young reporter, Eliza Kloser, who works for the Indigenous community outlet Ngaarda Media.
Kloser was the only reporter present as the bulldozers and cranes began the removal of three sacred rock art sites on the Burrup Peninsula to make way for the construction of a new fertiliser plant. Parked on the side of a public road photographing the removals, she was stopped and questioned by police. Shortly afterwards, another patrol stopped her again and this time searched the vehicle she was driving.
“It’s quite a remote place, so to have multiple cop cars out there at that time is unusual,” Kloser told me later. “And for them to stop me twice at that time … I can only assume that it’s because it is a very controversial construction that is going on.”
As well as requiring the removal of multiple sacred sites, against the objections of some local Elders, which I’ve covered in these pages previously, the Perdaman urea plant is set to become the largest consumer of liquefied natural gas in Western Australia. It will be fed by Woodside’s adjacent Pluto gas plant, which also required the removal of hundreds of rock art sites during its construction.
Previous construction on the Burrup involved the wholesale destruction of thousands of sites, with a Woodside spokesperson admitting to the ABC’s Four Corners that rock art they couldn’t relocate was “probably” crushed up and used as road base for the Karratha Gas Plant.
Kloser said she felt “targeted” by police, who seemed concerned about her camera and why she was out on the Burrup. “It seemed unusual. I’ve been to that place before, many times over the past couple of months, and I’ve never seen a single police car out there. But they were out there ever since the start of the construction.”
Later that day, police came to her home in Karratha and seized a storage card containing all her photographs of the rock art removals. It took more than a week to get it back.
Kloser says the police attention scared her because she doesn’t know what they might do next. “If I write another story on this, or if I go out there again, what is going to happen?” she wonders. “Will they find a way to arrest me or fine me for doing something wrong?”
Kloser says she is also more passionate about ensuring she covers important stories despite attempts to restrict her rights. “I don’t want the police to stop me from trying to tell these stories,” she says. “I don’t want the police to stop the public from knowing about the removal of rock art out there, or just any stories in general. Like, that’s not okay. That’s not how a country or how democracy works.”
Kloser described the attempt by authorities to shut down her story as a sort of blessing. “It’s actually kind of ironic how the police are trying to stop something, or trying to maybe scare me or interfere with what I was doing, and it’s made the story so much bigger in the end.”
A few days after Woodside’s annual general meeting, the same morning that Kloser was stopped and searched, Violet CoCo, a veteran of the New South Wales crackdown on climate protest, spray-painted the front of the Perth Police Centre with bright yellow Woodside logos, in solidarity with the Disrupt Burrup Hub campaign.
Police refused her bail and held her overnight, denying her access to a lawyer until just before she was due in court the next morning. Police also denied to media that CoCo had been charged, despite her hearing already having been listed by the court. “They’re prepared to break the law,” she told me afterwards, “and enact their own justice.”
CoCo says that while she was in custody an Aboriginal woman sharing her cell was ignored by police during a medical emergency.
“The way that they behaved, or what I saw, was clearly a continuation of the genocide of First Nations people through their lack of care. It doesn’t have to be intentional in terms of like, ‘Let’s kill this woman’, but their lack of care could have killed that woman. And there was a moment there where I thought she was dead and I was holding her hand, you know – it was really fucked up.”
When CoCo pleaded guilty in court, the magistrate commended her “noble” beliefs and encouraged her to keep protesting, albeit lawfully.
“It’s a fundamental tenet of Western democracy,” Magistrate Matthew Walton said. “It should be supported. You don’t have to go too far abroad to see the restrictions on personal freedoms and activism.”
David Mejia-Canales, a lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, says there needs to be a certain level of tolerance for disruption if the right to protest is to have any value. “A personal bugbear of mine is a narrative that has been created that protesters are disruptive, and therefore we must criminalise their behaviour,” he says. “Protest takes many forms, and sometimes it is disruptive. And that’s why it works. If our right to protest is going to be meaningful, and it’s going to have any value, then it must be a little disruptive.”
Mejia-Canales had already discussed his concerns about developments in WA with me prior to these latest developments. “That WA police targeted journalists – that seemed to be actually quite a significant escalation from what has happened in the eastern states, to my mind at least,” he tells me now. “I can’t think of any example where journalists have been targeted in this way. We should be asking a lot more questions of our government as to why this is happening.”
A few nights after I watched police search my home office, I spoke at an event at a pub around the corner. I speculated beforehand with one of the panellists, who I’d spoken to for the previous week’s story, about how many of the attendees would be undercover police.
After the discussion I was approached by an audience member who shook my hand and asked if I had legal assistance. I pointed out a lawyer at the bar. “Good,” he replied. “Because a few hours in a holding cell isn’t that bad. But two or three weeks in prison isn’t so much fun, you know?”
The implication seemed to be that next time I would be refused bail and held in prison on remand. It was intimidating and I felt it was intended to shut me up.
As a writer and campaigner, I have some experience with being a part of the story at the same time as trying to get it out. I have written for a number of years about the impacts of the housing crisis while also appearing in parliament, in court and in the media to advocate for homeless First Nations families. I write about deaths in custody, homelessness and the youth justice crisis because I know the people involved and the impacts. I cover stories I care about, so my journalism is fairly immersive, but I’ve never seen a story sweep me up as quickly as the Western Australian crackdown on climate protests. Activists, human rights advocates and political observers have all raised the prospect of WA as the latest state to face an assault on the right to peaceful protest, but when that overreach extends to vulnerable sources who have shared sensitive stories in confidence, it is important to oppose any attempt to impinge press freedom.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2023 as "WA police raid journalists".
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