Australian Journalists Risk Jail Time Over Reporting On The George Pell Case

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Australian prosecutors are accusing media outlets and journalists of contempt of court after their reporting of the George Pell case in Australia recently. Cardinal George Pell’s child sex abuse trial last year garnered huge interest from the general public. However, a suppression order was placed against reporting on the trial due to Australian laws that uphold the right to a fair and unbiased trial.

According to Reuters, prosecutors in Australia have issued a summons that could see dozens of journalists and media outlets facing jail time and fines regarding their coverage of the trial prior to the suppression order being lifted.

According to the summons, which was released on Tuesday, the director of Public Prosecutions in Victoria is asking the state’s Supreme Court to “send journalists to jail or impose fines for breaching a suppression order on coverage of the trial, aiding and abetting overseas media’s contempt of court” as well as “scandalizing the court.”

The first court hearing is set for April 15. The summons lists 23 journalists and 13 media outlets as breaching the order and committing contempt of court. The media outlets involved includes Nine Entertainment Co., The Age, The Australian Financial Review, Macquarie Media, and several News Corp publications. Ray Hadley and the editor-in-chief of the Australian Financial Review, Michael Stutchbury, were also named.

Only Australian journalists and outlets have been named in the court papers.

“Nine and the named employees deny the allegations but as the matter is now before the courts, Nine will not comment further at this time,” a Nine spokeswoman said.

News Corp maintained that they will defend the charges.

“We will vigorously defend all charges and resolutely stand by our editors and journalists.”

According to Jason Bosland, director of the Center for Media and Communications Law at Melbourne Law School, this is the biggest case he has seen, according to The New York Times.

“I’ve never seen so many media organizations and journalists charged in one hit,” Bosland said.

The County Court of Victoria issued a suppression order last year relating to the reporting of George Pell’s child sex abuse trial. The suppression order was set in order to “prevent prejudicing the jury.” It was set on both the trial of former Vatican treasurer and a second trial relating to older child sex offenses that was heard in March.

The suppression order was lifted on February 26 after the charges were dropped relating to the second trial. After the initial trial was conducted, some Australian media outlets reported on the case. However, due to the suppression order, they ran headlines pertaining to an “unnamed high-profile person.” They also reported that this person had been convicted of a “serious crime that could not be reported.” However, some publications overseas did report on the trial and named Cardinal Pell directly.

In the state of Victoria, where the Pell trial was heard, a breach of a suppression order is considered serious and a fine of A$100,000 (US$71,000) for individuals and nearly A$500,000 (US$355,141) for companies can be expected as well as up to five years in jail.