ONE of the biggest news stories in the world yesterday wasn’t reported to the very people who probably most needed to hear it.
Australian Cardinal George Pell – often called the third most powerful man in the Vatican – was found guilty of sexual misconduct on charges that reportedly stemmed from the abuse of two choir boys in the 1990s.
This conviction makes Pell the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be found guilty of such a crime. Pretty major news, many would agree. But Australian media has been banned from reporting any of the details of the trial, including Pell’s identity and the nature of the charges.
All media organisations are required by law to adhere to the suppression order issued by the state of Victoria courts. If violated, it could lead to a contempt of court conviction.
The order was imposed to avoid prejudice in a further trial against Pell that’s making its way through the courts now. Such is the principle of sub judice, which is Latin legalese that translates to “under judgment” or “under a judge” and means there are limits to public discussions on matters still under judicial consideration.
As this is the first trial, the order is to ensure future juries would not be swayed by Wednesday’s verdict.
While the motivation is sound, the implementation of them is not. Not only does it muzzle the press, but a major complaint is that they simply do not work.
The media is no longer constrained by printing presses and gag orders. In the online world we live in, it is nigh on impossible to stop people accessing almost anything, let alone one of the biggest news stories in the world.
Over the last 24 hours, Google searches for George Pell skyrocketed in Australia.
And anyone who didn’t immediately know who the prominent person the press was referring to in their “sorry we can’t tell you” stories, it didn’t take long for them to find out.
Searches for “high profile Australian” and “Australian convicted” also shot up and those curious enquirers weren’t disappointed. They were welcomed with a Google page that made it instantly clear the identity of the person in question.
But the fact that suppression orders don’t work doesn’t stop the Australian courts from issuing them en masse.
In a review released last year, former Court of Appeal Judge Frank Vincent found 1,594 orders were made between 2014 and 2016. Victoria, where Pell was tried, is far and away the worst culprit, accounting for more than half of the orders nationally.
Of those orders, Vincent determined 22 percent were blanket bans that did not say what specifically was being suppressed and instead prevented reporting on all and any aspect of the proceeding.
Vincent expressed concern with the regularity with which judges were issuing these orders and encouraged a more “real world” approach when dealing with the modern nature of media. Critics believe they are directly violating the principles of transparent justice enshrined in the Open Courts Act.
There has been an outpouring of criticism from Australian and some international media outlets.
The Australia-based The Age called the overuse of suppression orders “insidious and against the public interest.”
“Justices blind to reality are undermining freedom of speech and the public’s right to know how well the system their taxes fund might be working,” an editorial from The Age Editor Alex Lavelle, read.
The Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan called the secrecy “offensive” and accused the courts of allowing the “stonewalling” carried out by the Catholic Church to leak through into the media – supposedly society’s appointed truth-tellers.
“That’s especially so [offensive] because it echoes the secrecy that has always been so appalling a part of widespread sexual abuse by priests… And the news media shouldn’t be forced to be a part of keeping these destructive secrets.”
The gagging of journalists is particularly timely given TIME’s person of the year has just been announced to be “The Guardians and the war on truth,” honouring journalists who face obstacles in their reporting of the truth.
The piece highlights the plight of journalists around the world who find themselves in an increasingly narrowing space to report the facts. Whether due to threats from leadership, the enforced closure of newsrooms, or the imposition of excessively restrictive laws – as in Australia.
While Australia cannot be compared to the likes Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, the spotlight is now on the government to do something about the ineffective and harmful practice of suppression orders.
Vincent produced 18 recommendations in his report to improve the function and efficacy of the system, none of which have been implemented by state government. Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said on Thursday, his administration would ensure they were realised during his term.
But the Pell case has already landed Australia in hot water with media freedom activists. One more high-profile case like this is going to reflect poorly on Australia’s commitment to media freedom.