Washington, D.C., April 11, 2019 -- The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about summons issued by the Victoria state supreme court in Australia to 23 journalists and 13 news organizations to appear on April 15 and face possible prison sentences or fines. The journalists and outlets allegedly breached a court order to suppress news coverage of a trial and conviction, according to news reports.
The gag order covered the trial and December 11, 2018, conviction of Australian Cardinal George Pell on charges of sexual misconduct when he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, according to the news reports. The order banned reporting on the case in any publication accessible in Australia, and was lifted on February 26 after a second trial was cancelled, according to the reports.
The summoned journalists are all Australian citizens, and include reporters from Melbourne-based daily The Age, Sydney-based newspaper The Australian Financial Review, and outlets owned by Macquarie Media, Nine Entertainment, and News Corp, according to Reuters.
According to The Associated Press, the summoned news organizations did not explicitly name Pell in their coverage. Instead, the outlets and reporters may be found in contempt because they publicly acknowledged that they had been issued a gag order or that a "high-profile figure" had been convicted of a crime, according to news reports.
"Gag orders are futile in a case of global interest in the digital age," said Steven Butler, CPJ Asia program coordinator. "It is especially egregious that journalists face possible punishment not for reporting the news of the case, but for protesting the gag order. We urge Australian authorities to drop these proceedings and to re-examine the application of such suppression orders."
Victoria trial judge Peter Kidd was quoted by the AP warning that "a number of very important people in the media are facing, if found guilty, the prospect of imprisonment and indeed substantial imprisonment." Breaking a suppression order can be punished with up to five years in prison, according to the AP.
After the gag order was lifted, the Law Council of Australia, which represents lawyers across Australia, issued a statement calling for the country to review its use of such orders.