Witness K lawyer Bernard Collaery awarded free speech prize

Photo by Clarissa Thorpe: Bernard Collaery

Contributed by Ben Wilson

Lawyer Bernard Collaery has been awarded the International Blueprint for Free Speech Whistleblowing prize. This British award recognises the importance and courage of whistleblowers, and their contribution to free speech.

Past winners include Chelsea Manning, the former American intelligence officer who leaked documents providing evidence of his country’s war crimes, and Nick Martin, the doctor who blew the whistle on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru.

Collaery has been recognised for his efforts to represent the former Australian spy known as Witness k, who leaked information that exposed Australian spying on the offices of the government of East Timer. These offices were bugged, and cabinet meetings listened into, ostensibly to attain information, which could be used to help gain leverage over Timor Sea oil and gas reserves.

Witness K, an operative of the Australian Signals Intelligence Service (ASIS), became increasingly concerned over the immorality of the 2004 mission, and finally decided to speak out. Contact was made with Bernard Collaery and the rest is history.

The Australian government has been pursuing Collaery through the criminal courts. It is alleged he shared protected information. The implication is that this damaged Australia’s interests. If found guilty, both Collaery and Witness K face up to 10 years imprisonment.

Details of the exposure by Witness K have been used by the East Timor government as legal evidence, to take the case to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. This resulted in a better deal of the valuable resources than Australia had earlier been prepared to allow.

One of the judges, Lady Hollick, an award-winning former investigative television journalist, described Collaery’s story as “extraordinary”.

She said it showed the dangers posed to those who told the truth about the Timor-Leste scandal.

“It’s a story of spies, international espionage and corporate greed,” she said. “One of the richest countries in the Asia Pacific spied on and betrayed one of the poorest.

This and other recent cases bring home the serious limitation on the much claimed right to free speech that exists in Australia, and the increasing tendency of government to intimidate, punish, and silence critics.

Bernard Collaery should be treated as a hero in Australia.

The case is of obvious public interest. The spying was an illegal act against another nation. It had nothing to do with Australia’s security. The Prime Minister of the time, Alexander Downer, had a commercial interest in Woodside Petroleum, the company finally awarded the contract to exploit the East Timer Sea. Downer later got a job with the company.

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