March 4, 2019

Gag order followed by jail threat for scores of Australian journalists

Medias giants and several smaller publications received in early February this letter suspecting them of having breached the Suppression Order related to Cardinal Pell's trial. (photo: Saeed KHAN / AFP)
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by the letters that an Australian prosecutor has sent to around 100 journalists threatening contempt of court charges that could lead to jail terms for covering Cardinal George Pell's conviction while it was still subject to a gag order. RSF regards the letters as a serious press freedom violation.

Sent by Victoria state director of public prosecutions Kerri Judd in early February to approximately 100 reporters and editors at leading Australian news organizations, the letter accuses them of violating a “suppression order” by reporting Pell’s child sex abuse conviction in Melbourne in December.

Issued by a judge last June, the suppression order instructed journalists attending Pell’s trial not to reveal any details about it so as not to influence a planned second trial on similarly serious charges. Plans for a second trial have been dropped.

The prosecutor’s letters call on the recipients to “show cause” why they should not be charged with contempt of court – by demonstrating that they had not intended to violate the order or had not intended to prejudice the second trial – failing which they could face the possibility of prison sentences.

“This order imposed a serious constraint on press freedom by censoring journalists’ coverage of information in the public interest,” RSF said. “The possibility that journalists could now be prosecuted and given jail sentences for contravening this order is not only an aberration but also a double punishment. Whatever their responsibility in the revelations, it is unthinkable that the Australian judicial system should threaten them with imprisonment. If inflicted, such a punishment would be out of all proportion and would sully the image of Australian justice.”



The gag order was widely condemned by the Australian media as excessively restrictive. After the verdict in the Pell trial in December, the Melbourne Herald Sun printed an all-black front page with the single word “CENSORED” in white.

Paul Murphy, the head of Australia’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEEA), told RSF: “Suppression orders are 19th century tools that were created to respond to the age of the printing press. They are incapable of meeting the complexities of 21st century borderless digital publishing platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.”

Murphy added: “It is virtually impossible to quarantine jurors from instantaneous social media postings or second-hand reporting overseas that is quickly accessible via a search engine. MEAA has long condemned the excessive use of suppression orders, particularly in Victoria.”

The news organizations that have received the letters have said little about them, suggesting that they have already had a dangerous chilling effect on the Australian media.

Australia is ranked 19th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.