Australia to launch police campaign to combat foreign interference

Foreign interference is threats and intimidation directed, supervised or financed towards locals in order to cause harm and impact on Australia’s multicultural way of life.

The AFP will launch an education campaign to advise Australian communities what to do if they believe they are being threatened or intimidated by foreign governments.

AFP community liaison teams across Australia will meet with culturally and linguistically diverse communities (CALD), groups and religious leaders to explain what foreign interference is, how it manifests and where victims can seek assistance.

A factsheet, which will be translated into more than 30 languages, will urge individuals to call the National Security Hotline if they believe they are the victim of, or have witnessed, foreign interference in Australia.

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AFP Special Investigations Commander Stephen Nutt said the AFP worked closely with ASIO and other agencies as a member of the Counter Foreign Interference Task Force to identify and counter foreign interference in Australia.

“Foreign interference represents a serious threat to Australian communities, sovereignty and security,’’ Commander Nutt said.

“Threats of foreign interference are not constrained to one sector of the Australian community nor perpetrated by a single nation state.

“Foreign state actors that undertake hostile activity against other countries are creating and pursuing opportunities to interfere with Australians – from decision-makers at all levels of government, across a range of sectors, and our communities.”

Commander Nutt said it was important individuals knew that foreign interference was a crime under Australian law and the best defence is being able to recognise it and knowing how to report it.

“On a community level, foreign interference is defined as threats and intimidation directed, supervised or financed by foreign governments and targeted towards CALD communities in order to cause harm and impact on Australia’s multicultural way of life.”

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Foreign governments may target communities for a number of reasons, including:

  • To silence criticism of the foreign government’s internal and external polices;
  • To monitor the activities, including online, of members of CALD groups;
  • To promote the views and policies of a foreign government;
  • To obtain information for the benefit of the foreign government, and
  • To influence the views and opinions of the broader population.

Commander Nutt said unlawful acts of foreign interference included foreign governments, their agents or proxies using covert or deceptive conduct, threats of assault, blackmail, kidnapping or coercion by threatening an individual’s family member living overseas.

It also included disinformation campaigns to discredit people or groups.

“An example of foreign interference is where a foreign government agent pays an Australian citizen to undertake surveillance of people attending an Australian community discussion about the foreign government, and then reports back on people who were critical of the foreign government.

“Another example is if a person in Australia, willingly assists a foreign government by going to a person’s home or contacts them by telephone to threaten them with serious harm unless they stop criticising the foreign government in online forums.

“Another example is if a foreign government agent or proxy threatens to release sensitive private information of a person on the internet unless they agree to sponsor a visa of a person to travel to Australia.”

Importantly, to be considered foreign interference under Australian law, the activity must be linked to a foreign government or its proxy. Self-directed individuals loyal to a foreign government, threatening or intimidating community members is not foreign interference. 

“While not all reports of foreign interference in the community will generate an obvious AFP response, each report helps to build a picture of emerging issues.

“The AFP cannot investigate every report of foreign interference in the community, but each report to the National Security Hotline is taken seriously and actively assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine if any criminal offending is identified.”

The National Security Hotline – 1800 123 400 – operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Operators know what to do with information provided and where appropriate will pass it on to law enforcement and security agencies for assessment.

It is accepted some callers may want to remain anonymous.

Importantly, individuals are reminded that if they feel their life is at imminent risk, they should call Triple 000.

Community groups and representatives can contact the AFP community engagement teams at AFP-CLT@afp.gov.au to arrange for a meeting.