Jess Flatters: We Need a Free Press

It couldn’t happen here? It just did.

 It took Annika Smethurst months to hear the sound of her doorbell without it triggering a rush of anxiety. She has become a household name since the AFP raided her home in June 2019, rifling through her personal belongings in relation to articles she wrote more than a year earlier. In those articles based on leaked documents, she wrote about an internal proposal to expand the powers of some intelligence agencies from spying outside Australia to spying on the general Australian public.

What is the case against Smethurst?

Smethurst has not yet been charged – a fact which has weighed on her heavily as she waits months, perhaps years, to learn of her fate. The law that the police relied upon in their raid of Smethurst’s home had, until then, never been used to obtain a warrant against a journalist. The law is section 79(3) of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) which prohibits unauthorised communication of official secrets. The government claims her article threatened the country’s national security.

What protections are in place?

We are the only democratic country to not have freedom of speech enshrined in its constitution. Until now, we have had to trust that our elected politicians will refrain from encroaching on the ‘implied freedom of political communication’ – the flimsy protection that is ‘implied’ in our constitution. The freedom is restricted: a burden upon the freedom is valid if it reasonably appropriate and adapted to serve a legitimate end. In November Smethurst’s lawyers argued that section 79(3) was used in an exercise of constitutional overreach; for the illegitimate purpose of protecting governments from embarrassment and government secrecy as an end in itself.

While criminal charges against government officials who leak state secrets are not new, the severe threats that face journalists for fulfilling their role in a democracy are. Sections 70 and 79 of the Crimes Act 1914 provide that government whistleblowers and journalists may be subject to up to two years’ imprisonment for disclosure and/or publication of certain government information. There are no public interest defences available for journalists.

Your Right to Know

Many Australians would have been surprised to see the likes of The Guardian, Newscorp and Nine band together as part of the Right to Know Campaign following the raids of Smethurst, the ABC, and the threat of raids against Ben Fordham. These diverse media organisations are among every Australian daily newspaper that published redacted front pages on the morning of Monday 21 October 2019. They are attempting to push back against the flood of national security laws that have been introduced since 9/11, which include harsh treatment of whistleblowers and journalists, and invasive data collection and retention laws where warrants can be sidestepped.

Smethurst’s case continues. While awaiting her fate, she has moved out of her home. Though the AFP agents who traipsed through her house are long gone, their invasive presence is felt in the ongoing uncertainty of her future. Australians should also be feeling the weight of what is increasingly becoming a surveillance state, where ‘national security’ is exploited as an untouchable catch-all for anything that may portray the government in a negative light.

Journalists should not be scared for their future liberty by the sound of a doorbell. But Australians should be scared for their future in a democracy that silences those who speak truth to power.


Jessica Flatters


A very beautiful postcard from Nedim Turfent, Turkish imprisoned writer

Recently we received this beautiful postcard from Nedim Turfent in response to cards sent to him by PEN Melbourne members.

October 2019 – Responding to the news that reporter, news editor and poet Nedim Türfent had his prison sentence upheld by Turkey’s Court of Cassation yesterday, Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said:

‘We deplore the decision of Turkey’s Court of Cassation to uphold Nedim Türfent’s lengthy and unfair prison sentence, despite blatant violations of his right to a fair trial. It is another dark day in Nedim’s ongoing miscarriage of justice. The Turkish authorities must release him immediately and unconditionally, and urgently overturn his conviction.’

Nedim Türfent is serving an eight-year-and-nine- month prison sentence on trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him. He spent almost two years in solitary confinement in harrowing detention conditions. Determined to keep writing, he started composing poetry while detained.



Proposed by Norwegian PEN, seconded by Swedish PEN and Danish PEN

PEN International expresses concern over the US government’s indictment against WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange and the threat his prosecution poses to press freedom.

In May 2019, Julian Assange was indicted by the US Justice Department on 17 counts of violating the US Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and publishing classified military and diplomatic documents in 2010. UN experts, free expression groups and scores of human rights lawyers have made it clear that this prosecution raises profound concerns about freedom of the press under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and sends a dangerous signal to journalists and publishers worldwide. US prosecutors had already charged Julian Assange with one hacking-related count, which also includes a list of actions that fall under journalistic activities.

Through WikiLeaks, Julian Assange published classified material provided by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, then a military analyst in the US army, which revealed evidence of human rights violations and possiblewar crimes committed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. US prosecutors criticized Julian Assange for putting the identity of sources at risk by publishing unredacted materials. However, the indictment does not hinge on that fact but effectively opens the door to criminalizing activities that are vital to all investigative journalists who write about national security matters.

The US Espionage act of 1917 was designed to punish spies and traitors working with foreign governments during wartime. Using it to sentence Chelsea Manning to 35 years in prison was in itself a threat to critical publishing. The fact that Julian Assange now faces decades behind bars will cause a chilling effect on critical journalism seeking to expose the truth about crimes committed by governments. The fact that a government decides that a specific document is secret or confidential does not make it so, and on many occasions the public’s right to know overrides the state’s desire to keep matters secret, such as evidence of human rights violations or corruption.

In June 2019, the United Kingdom’s home secretary signed a US extradition order for Julian Assange. His extradition hearing has been set for February 2020.

The Assembly of Delegates of PEN International calls on the United States to:

  • Drop charges against WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange, who faces a lengthy prison sentence in the United States for obtaining and publishing newsworthy information. Espionage laws should not be used against journalists and publishers for disclosing information of public interest.

The Assembly of Delegates of PEN International further calls on the United Kingdom to:

  • Reject extraditing Julian Assange to the United States.

Turkey: Aslı Erdoğan and Necmiye Alpay acquitted Friday 14 February 2020

Responding to the news that award-winning writer Aslı Erdoğan and renowned linguist Necmiye Alpay were acquitted of terror-related charges by an Istanbul court earlier today, Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said:

‘We, the PEN community, are delighted with the wonderful news today from Turkey, which is all too rare: we celebrate the long-awaited acquittal of Aslı Erdoğan and Necmiye Alpay. They have endured three-and-a-half years of judicial harassment and that they were to be prosecuted for what they had written is a matter of disgrace. Such blatantly politically motivated prosecutions have become a staple of Turkey’s criminal justice system.

As we welcome this great victory for press freedom, we refuse to lose sight of those still languishing behind bars in Turkey on trumped-up charges – and we will continue to campaign for the freedom of Ahmet Altan, Osman Kavala, Nedim Türfent and Selahattin Demirtaş.

We renew our call on the Turkish authorities to end these prosecutions of writers and journalists and release them from detention, because they are being subjected to such treatment only because of the content of their writing or alleged affiliations. We call upon Turkish authorities to immediately release all those held in prison for peacefully expressing their views.’

Read more on the PEN International website:

Turkey: acclaimed writer Aslı Erdoğan facing lengthy prison sentence in impending verdict

The Turkish authorities must drop all charges against award-winning writer Aslı Erdoğan, who faces up to nine years and four months in prison for her writings, PEN International said today, ahead of an expected verdict on 14 February 2020.

Aslı Erdoğan was detained in August 2016 following a police raid on her apartment. She was arrested alongside more than 20 other journalists and employees from the now-closed pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem, where she served as an advisory board member and columnist. Initially charged with being a member of a terrorist organisation and disrupting the unity of the state, she was released from pre-trial detention on 29 December 2016 following a national and international outcry.

On 13 January 2019, prosecutors requested that Aslı Erdoğan be sentenced to up to nine years and four months in prison for ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’. Charges against her stem from four articles she wrote and published in Özgür Gündem in 2016. A verdict is expected to be announced at the next hearing on 14 February 2020.

Proceedings against Aslı Erdoğan have been dragging on for three and a half years. She has been forced to spend 132 days behind bars and has had to suffer a travel ban for months – and all that because she has expressed her views peacefully. This is a blatantly politically motivated prosecution, which has tormented Aslı Erdoğan and countless independent voices in Turkey. With a verdict looming, the PEN community continues to stand firmly in solidarity with Aslı Erdoğan and emphatically and forcefully calls for all charges against her to be dropped,’ said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writer in Prison Committee.


Please publish articles and opinion in your national or local press highlighting the case of Aslı Erdoğan and freedom of expression in Turkey.

Share information about the case and your activities on social media; please use the hashtag #FreeTurkeyMedia.

Additional information

Fifty-six journalists and activists took part in a solidarity campaign with Özgür Gündem from May to August 2016 in a bid to draw attention to the Turkish authorities’ long-standing attempts to put pressure on the publication and its reporters. Scores of journalists and writers were arrested for taking part in the campaign; Özgür Gündem was closed by emergency decree in October 2016. In March 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey had violated the right to freedom of expression in systematically bringing terrorism-related criminal cases against Özgür Gündem’s owner between 2004 and 2005 ‘regardless of the actual content of the articles’.

Aslı Erdoğan is a prize-winning author of several books. Her short story Wooden Birds received first prize from Deutsche Welle radio in a 1997 competition; her second novel, Kirmizi Pelerinli Kent (The City in Crimson Cloak), received numerous accolades abroad and has been published in scores of languages. She won several awards, including the 2016 Swedish PEN’s Tucholsky prize, the 2018 Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Human Rights and the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation’s 2019 Disturbing the Peace Award.

PEN International and PEN Centres across the world actively campaigned for Aslı Erdoğan’s release at the time of her arrest. She is an honorary member of several PEN Centres, including PEN Québec and Swedish PEN. For more information about PEN’s actions on behalf of Aslı Erdoğan to date, please click here.

For more information about the state of freedom of expression in Turkey and the authorities’ sustained clampdown on writers and journalists, please click here.

For further details contact Aurélia Dondo at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK Tel: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338 Fax +44 (0) 20 7405 0339 e-mail:

Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Australian academic jailed in Iran, says she rejected offer to become a spy


Melbourne University lecturer Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been held in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran since October 2018, serving 10 years for espionage.

Key points:

  • Dr Moore-Gilbert said in a letter that her health “has deteriorated significantly”
  • She said she would not change her decision on the offer to spy for Iran under any circumstances
  • Dr Moore-Gilbert said it was “inhumane” being denied opportunities to speak to her family

Read the full ABC report at the link below:

Nigeria: journalists detained as authorities clampdown on freedom of expression

It is clear that the right to freedom of expression is increasingly under threat in Nigeria, PEN International said today, amid reports of the arrest and detention of journalists in the country. The organisation calls on the Nigerian authorities to uphold the right to freedom of expression, enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, by releasing journalists detained for peacefully expressing themselves via their work or activism, and allowing journalists to carry out their work free from interference.

One example of the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Nigeria is the detention of journalist and activist Agba Jalingo, publisher of the online news site CrossRiverWatch. Jalingo was arrested on 22 August in Lagos in relation to an article and associated social media posts he had written in July 2019, detailing allegations of corruption by the state governor of Cross River state. Jalingo was originally charged in August with treason, terrorism and publishing false information, but the charges were later amended in October, according to a charge sheet viewed by PEN International. Jalingo now faces three charges under the Terrorism Act and one under the Cybercrimes Act. The terrorism charges are based on Jalingo’s alleged involvement with Omoyele Sowore in a protest movement in Nigeria (see below). If found guilty, Jalingo could face a life sentence in prison or the death penalty. He has been denied bail twice, and remains in detention in Calabar prison, in southern Nigeria. PEN also has serious concerns that Jalingo will not be granted a fair trial, as the Federal High court has allowed witnesses to be masked and the trial to be held in secret.

The detention of journalists, such as Agba Jalingo, for what they have written is a worrying indication of the Nigerian authorities’ increasing intolerance of those who criticise the government or raise difficult questions about matters of public interest,said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. ‘It is absurd that the authorities are prosecuting him; they should instead investigate the allegations he has raised and promptly release him without charge.’

As well as Jalingo, Omoyele Sowore, a high-profile journalist and publisher of the online news website Sahara Reporters, and a human rights and opposition activist, remains in detention in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, despite a court order to release him and having met his bail conditions. His detention and the charges against him of treason, money laundering, and cyber-stalking the President, appear to be in response to his organisation of a peaceful protest movement calling for good governance, known under the name of #RevolutionNow. Sowore has been held by the Department of Security Services (DSS) since 3 August 2019. After his arrest, he was detained for a renewable 45-day period under the Terrorism Act, in order for the authorities to carry out further investigations. The DSS has so far refused to release him on bail, despite two court orders to do so – the DSS have ignored a September court order ruling that he should be released pending his trial, and failed to comply with a November court order calling for his release once he had met his bail conditions. On 12 November, journalists covering protests by activists calling for Sowore’s release outside the DSS headquarters in Abuja, as well as the protestors themselves, were reportedly harassed and attacked by DSS officials.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, journalists have also been assaulted while covering protests and elections in other parts of the country over the past few months.

In addition, several other journalists, bloggers and writers are facing restrictions on their right to freedom of expression through legal proceedings, arrests and detentions. PEN International is seeking more information on these cases. PEN Nigeria released a statement on 15 November, PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer, drawing attention to the worrying situation facing writers and journalists in the country. PEN Nigeria stated:

These instances of violation of the freedom of expression of Nigerian writers, journalists and bloggers, at the behest of agents of the state, call for great concern. In a democratic dispensation such as Nigeria purports to be, one of the pillars is freedom of expression…As a body of writers, we are concerned about the implications for the Nigerian people of these systematic acts of repression. We believe that such censorship of the people bodes ill for the continuing healthy evolution of this entity called Nigeria. We therefore wish to condemn in the strongest terms these acts of violation of the right to liberty of the afore-named persons, as well as others facing a similar fate.”

The Cybercrime (Prohibition and Prevention) Act of 2015 and the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act of 2013 have been criticised for being overly broad and have been used to silence critical voices. Other proposed legislative measures raise concerns that they will be used to restrict freedom of expression, including a bill to regulate social media, which passed a second reading in Nigeria’s Senate on 20 November. A hate speech bill was reintroduced before the Senate on 12 November and initially proposed the death penalty as a possible punishment; reports indicate that the bill will be amended to remove this provision.

PEN International calls on the Nigerian authorities to uphold their obligations to protect freedom of expression by releasing journalists detained for their work or otherwise arbitrarily detained, ensuring that journalists can safely practice their profession without fear of repercussions, and amending or repealing legislation to ensure it is in line with international human rights standards.

For more information, please contact Lianna Merner, Africa Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Koops Mill Mews, Unit A, 162-164 Abbey St, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email:

Challenge what you know: what’s really happening to Julian Assange

London-based Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson has been a legal adviser to Assange and Wikileaks since the start of this decade.

Ms Robinson says the indictment of Assange “sets a terrifying precedent” by “criminalising common journalistic practices which have been used towards the public interest for decades in the United States”.

In November 2019 she spoke at public meetings organised by PEN Sydney and Melbourne centres. Here she talks with Quentin Dempster about the realities of the charges Assange faces and the implications for press freedom.