Pacific News Minute: Dozens Of Australian Journalists Face Charges For Violating Gag Order

Mar 28, 2019

Cardinal George Pell
Credit Gavin Scott

Many of Australia’s most prominent news organizations and dozens of journalists face fines and even prison sentences for violating a gag order. A judge prohibited coverage of the trial of Cardinal George Pell; news of Pell’s conviction was a major news story in February. But, he had actually been convicted last December.

The trial was held in Melbourne, the capital of the state of Victoria and after Pell was convicted, the front page of the local paper, the Herald Sun, was black, except for the word “censored” in big white letters. Below, in smaller print: “The world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians. The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this significant news, but trust us, it’s a story you deserve to read.”

At the time, Cardinal Pell faced a second trial for child sexual abuse and the Chief Judge Peter Kidd imposed the gag order, fearing that the coverage of the first trial might prejudice the jury of the second.

Like the Herald Sun, many Australian news outlets objected without publishing details, others dropped hints. International media did report the verdict, including The Daily Beast and the Washington Post, but the New York Times, which has a bureau in Australia, only covered the story in its print editions, blocked shipment of those newspapers to Australia, and did not report the verdict in its online editions.

Even though prosecutors dropped charges in the second case, the director of public prosecutions asked the state supreme court to find journalists and news outlets guilty of breaching the gag order, aiding and abetting international news outlets, and some are charged with “scandalizing the court” by publishing material that could undermine public confidence in the justice system.  

The Pell case prompted critics to describe suppression orders as antiquated relics, unenforceable in the age of the internet.