By Tom Westbrook
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Three dozen Australian journalists and publishers are to face court on Monday over their coverage of Cardinal George Pell’s trial for child sex abuse, with prosecutors seeking fines and jail terms over accusations of breached gag orders in the case.
Prosecutors in the southeastern state of Victoria have accused the 23 journalists and 13 news outlets of aiding and abetting contempt of court by overseas media and breaching suppression orders.
Among those facing contempt charges are Nine Entertainment Co, the Age, the Australian Financial Review, Macquarie Media, and several News Corp publications.
Although Monday’s hearing is largely procedural, media experts say the case shows not only the serious consequences of breaching rules on court reporting but also how poorly the rules rein in coverage in the era of digital news.
“It shows that the laws themselves are out of sync with the speed and breadth of publication,” said Mark Pearson, a professor of journalism and social media at Griffith University in Queensland state.
“But the courts can only do what is available to them. The courts have to send a message that people deserve a fair trial and that people can’t publish what they want to when someone is facing court, if that might damage the trial.”
Breaches of suppression orders can be punished with jail for up to five years and fines of nearly A$100,000 ($71,000) for individuals, and nearly A$500,000 for companies.
Macquarie Media did not respond to a request for comment but it has previously declined to comment, as the accusations are subject to legal proceedings.
Nine, which owns the Age and the Australian Financial Review, has denied the accusations and said it was surprised by the charges. News Corp has said it will defend itself vigorously.
Pell, who became the most senior Catholic cleric worldwide to be convicted of child sex abuse, was jailed for six years in February.
The county court of Victoria put a suppression order on reporting of Pell’s trial last year to prevent jury prejudice in that case, as well as on a second trial on other charges set for March.
In December, the jury in the first trial found Pell guilty of abusing two choir boys.
After the verdict, some Australian media said an unnamed high-profile person had been convicted of a serious crime that could not be reported.
No Australian media named Pell or the charges at the time, though some overseas media did.
Those who published online do not have offices or staff in Australia and were not charged for ignoring the suppression order, but have lobbied against it.
“Gag orders are futile in a case of global interest in the digital age,” said Steven Butler, an official of the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “We urge Australian authorities to drop these proceedings and to re-examine the application of such suppression orders,” added Butler.
The gag order, which had applied across Australia “and on any website or other electronic or broadcast format accessible within Australia”, was lifted on Feb. 26 when the charges that would have figured in the second trial were dropped.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez)