MELBOURNE, Victoria, Australia (ChurchMilitant.com) - About a dozen journalists and 13 media organizations have appeared in court on charges of violating a media gag order regarding Cdl. George Pell.
The criminal trial opened in a Melbourne court Monday, with journalists and news outfits accused of breaching a court suppression order forbidding them from reporting on Cdl. George Pell's guilty verdict in December. The media organizations are being charged with aiding and abetting contempt of court by helping foreign media.
"There are simply no cases of which we are aware in Australia where media organizations, editors or journalists have been charged, much less found guilty, of contempt in circumstances such as these," said Matthew Collins, a member of the Queen's Council arguing on behalf of the journalists.
He claims that a guilty verdict would have a "chilling effect" on news reporting in the country and on freedom and democracy itself.
If found guilty, Australian journalists face up to five years in prison and $71,000 in fines. Media organizations could pay up to $380,000.
Church Militant reported on Pell's conviction on Dec. 11, and within 24 hours received a letter from Australian prosecutor Kerri Judd threatening this organization with sanctions if we did not remove our article immediately.
"The prohibition on publication in that order applies within all States and Territories of Australia and on any website or other electronic or broadcast format accessible within Australia," Judd's letter read.
She requested that Church Militant "immediately remove the article from publication" — even though Church Militant is a U.S.-based corporation outside of Australia's jurisdiction — going on to write, "I am currently considering my options with regard to sub judice contempt and breach of suppression order proceedings."
Unlike in the United States, Australia has no constitutional right to free speech or freedom of the press. Such suppression orders are thus legal in Australia. But Australian courts have no jurisdiction over foreign media organizations.
A December meeting between Chief Judge Peter Kidd — who imposed the six-year sentence on Pell — and Judd and Pell's attorney reveal his anger at what he deemed "egregious and flagrant" breaches of his gag order:
[G]iven how potentially egregious and flagrant these breaches are, a number of very important people in the media are facing, if found guilty, the prospect of imprisonment and indeed substantial imprisonment, and it may well be that many significant members of the media community are in that potential position. That being the case, that should inform us as to how the matter ought to be dealt with.
Judd also discussed the possibility of "extradition" of offenders, involving forcibly removing members of media from foreign countries to stand trial in Australia.
The scope of the prohibition — which applies to "any website or other electronic or broadcast format accessible within Australia" — was breathtaking. It included any laptop, ipad, phone, television or electronic device anywhere in Australia that transmitted Church Militant's article.
The territory of Victoria issues the most suppression orders out of all Australian jurisdictions — more than half. Its reputation has led critics to nickname it the "Suppression State."
At the time of the gag order, various Australian websites complained about its restrictions on reporting. In an article in The Age titled "Why the media is unable to report on a case that has generated huge interest online," Patrick O'Neil and Michael Bachelard wrote:
A year-long review of Victoria's 2013 Open Courts Act by retired judge Frank Vincent called into question the function and efficacy of suppression orders in an internet age.
Even if major media organisations were gagged, nothing could prevent a case from being canvassed on social media, blogs and myriad other channels, he said.
A view to the contrary is "most likely to represent wishful thinking than reality," Justice Vincent found, and a "real world" approach is required.
Despite this, and the principles of transparent justice enshrined in the Open Courts Act, Victorian judges were "troublingly" issuing as many suppression orders as they ever were.
Australia's Daily Telegraph, in an article titled "The Nation's Biggest Story," wrote:
A HIGH-profile Australian with a worldwide reputation has been convicted of an awful crime. The world is talking about it and reputable overseas news sites have published lengthy stories on the case — but The Daily Telegraph and other Australian media are prohibited from telling you about it. ...
The courts demand that you ignore the story totally until they see fit. But we think that would be a disservice to the readers of The Telegraph who would expect the same fair and fearless reporting of this case that we've delivered on other similar stories.
Kidd was blasted on social media for what many Americans saw as hubris and judicial overreach.
In spite of Judd's threats, Church Militant never pulled the article about Pell's conviction from our site.
The 23 Australian journalists and 13 media organizations are scheduled to appear again in court June 26 for preliminary hearings.