Sunday, 14 April 2019

Morrison Government caught out attempting to retrospectively censor native bird export information

The Guardian, 4 April 2019:

The Australian government has attempted to retrospectively censor critical information related to exports of rare and exotic birds to a German organisation headed by a convicted kidnapper, fraudster and extortionist.

Guardian Australia revealed late last year that Australia had permitted the export of 232 birds, some worth tens of thousands of dollars, to the Brandenburg-based Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) between 2015 and November 2018.

Conservation groups and federal politicians had repeatedly expressed concern about the group, which is headed by Martin Guth, a man with multiple criminal convictions.
The Guardian’s investigation relied on internal government documents secured through freedom of information laws, released in August.

Guardian Australia made subsequent freedom of information requests and received further documents in January. But the federal department of environment has now attempted to retrospectively redact parts of the documents, saying it accidentally released information it shouldn’t have.

Some of the inadvertently released information could “facilitate fraudulent export applications”, the department said. The department had also accidentally released “personal information, such as birth dates and name, and confidential business information”.

The department has asked Guardian Australia to destroy its copies of the documents, and not further disseminate the newly redacted details.

“While we understand that the FOI decisions have already been made, and that you are under no obligation to follow the department’s wishes, we kindly request that you either: destroy the documents that the department has previously released to you and instead, use the redacted documents attached to this letter; or otherwise ensure that the information in question … is not further disclosed or made publicly available,” the department said in a letter emailed to the Guardian on Wednesday, but dated last month.

The documents have not been published on the department’s online FOI disclosure log. The department’s stance suggests that other parties – journalists or conservation groups, for example – would be subject to the newly introduced redactions if they requested the same documents.

Freedom of information experts say the government’s actions have “no legal basis”……

The new redactions remove details that made it possible for Guardian Australia to establish that the operator of ACTP’s Netherlands facility was convicted in 2015 of involvement as a buyer in a trading ring that was illegally selling protected exotic birds.

The department has also removed identification numbers for the birds that were exported to Germany, arguing that its original decision to release that information could lead to “fraudulent” exports of Australian birds overseas.

It has also blacked out permit numbers from the export permits issued in Australia, the names of individuals who operate other ACTP facilities in Germany and in other countries, and removed information relating to ACTP’s exemption status from corporate tax.

The redactions remove images of ACTP’s main breeding facility and maps that illustrate its layout.

In recent months, Guardian Australia has been trying to establish whether the department undertook adequate due diligence to ensure that all of the birds sent to ACTP were legally captive bred.

But the department has refused to release names of suppliers in Australia that would show the chain of custody for each of the birds before they were exported to Germany. Those details were redacted from FoI documents released to the Guardian in January and from documents tabled after an order for the production of documents in parliament.

Attempts by government agencies to retrospectively recover or redact FOI documents have previously been found to have no lawful basis under NSW freedom of information law. Landcom, the NSW government’s land and property development organisation, attempted to retrieve documents it had accidentally released to a school committee group in 2005, and took its case to the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal.

The tribunal found it had no power whatsoever to retrieve previously released FOI documents.

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