Lawyers for Adani have sought to identify people who obtained leaked information about its Carmichael coal project, raising concerns that journalists could be dragged into “conspiracy” legal proceedings launched by the miner against an environmental activist.
The activist, Ben Pennings, from the group Galilee Blockade, is being sued by Adani for conspiracy, intimidation and breach of confidence.
Adani alleges Pennings “orchestrated a sustained campaign” against the Carmichael coal project, in which he solicited confidential information about the construction process and used it to harass contractors.
Pennings told Guardian Australia that Adani had offered to cease the legal action against him if he provided an affidavit “identifying how the information they say is confidential information has been allegedly used”.
“I deny what Adani alleges in their civil action against me, but it’s no secret that as Galilee Blockade’s spokesperson I spoke to journalists regularly,” Pennings said.
“As a citizen passionate about press freedom, I’m concerned Adani will continue their attacks on journalists by unnecessarily dragging them into my supreme court proceedings.”
Adani has previously sought to access ABC journalists’ records via freedom of information requests. The company has recently taken to social media to criticise journalists from the ABC and Nine newspapers in relation to stories about its business dealings.
The Carmichael project in north Queensland has become Australia’s most significant flashpoint in the broader debate about coal and climate change. In recent years, multiple news reports have detailed information about the project that was obtained via leaks, or that Adani had otherwise not sought to reveal.
Adani did not address questions sent by Guardian Australia last week, seeking to clarify whether the company intended to take court action, or seek similar damages, from journalists who had obtained and published the company’s confidential information.
The journalists’ union has also raised worries that Adani’s moves to identify those who obtained its information could ultimately target journalists.
“It is concerning when litigation is designed to impede journalists carrying out their duties in reporting on matters that are in the public interest,” the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance acting media president, Adam Portelli, said.
“There can be no doubt that the activities of Adani are of great interest to Australians. Any attempt to intimidate, threaten or harass journalists or to prevent them from reporting such matters is clearly an attack on press freedom.
“There is a long history of corporations engaging in strategic litigation against public participation to avoid scrutiny of their operations, muzzle freedom of expression and deny the public’s right to know. These actions tend to be self-defeating simply because they provoke even greater curiosity about what the company may be trying to hide.”
Guardian Australia asked Adani whether it was seeking the names of journalists who had obtained confidential information; whether the company considered journalist were part of the alleged “conspiracy” involving Pennings; and whether it intended to take legal action against journalists.
Adani Australia said in a statement: “Out of respect to the courts and in accordance with prudent legal advice, Adani is not able to comment without prejudicing negotiations with Mr Pennings via the media.
“We expect Mr Pennings to honour his commitment to comply with the supreme court order made on 11 September 2020. Further, we look forward to receiving his response to Adani’s claim in due course.”
Pennings said he would fight the case against Adani.
“Adani has a lot to gain if concerned citizens are too scared to tell the truth or engage in peaceful protest,” he said. “The more my family and I suffer, the stronger the threat to the wider community.
“Civil society must fight Adani’s attacks on journalists and activists in the court of public opinion.”