Under repeated questioning, Mr Gaughan suggested a crime had been committed by publishing classified documents and said he was “not going to rule in or rule out anyone subject to further charges”.
He said search warrants executed on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC – which relate to separate matters – were conducted as part of investigations into alleged breaches of the Crimes Act that cover not just the leaking of material by Commonwealth officers but also the actual publication of the material.
Asked whether it was a crime to publish the leaked documents, Mr Gaughan replied: “Yes, it can be”, but noted there may be public interest exemptions under federal law.
When pressed on whether it was his intention to prosecute media organisations, he said: “We have not made a decision.”
The comments will spark outrage from Australia’s major media companies, which have already condemned the raids on Smethurst’s Canberra home on Tuesday and the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters on Wednesday.
“I reject the claim over the last few days we’re trying to intimidate journalists or conduct a campaign against the media,” Mr Gaughan said. “The AFP is a strong supporter of press freedom. The media plays an important role in today’s society in keeping the Australian community informed.”
Mr Gaughan also raised the prospect of further raids on media organisations in the coming days or weeks.
“I’m not going to give a blow by blow description to where the investigation is at, and nor would you expect me to,” he said.
“The investigation is complex and ongoing. Potentially we may do more search warrants.”
More to come
Bevan Shields is the Federal Editor and Canberra Bureau Chief for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.