Australia seeks possible jail for journalists over Pell gag order

Media interest in the trial of Cardinal George Pell was intense despite a court-imposed gag order (AFP pic)

SYDNEY: Australia has demanded jail time or fines for 23 journalists accused of breaching an order not to report on the paedophilia trial of Cardinal George Pell.

In a court filing released Tuesday, the Department of Public Prosecutions called for the reporters and 13 of the country’s leading news organisations to face trial for contempt of court.

Cardinal Pell’s long court case was kept out of public view thanks to a strict order from Chief Judge Peter Kidd, who barred not only reporting of the trial but also any reporting of his gag order.

But following Pell’s conviction in December on charges of sexually abusing two choirboys in the 1990’s, newspapers such as The New York Times and the Washington Post published details of the case outside Australia, arguing that a judge in one country cannot make law for the world.

A number of Australian newspapers and media organisations then ran headlines complaining that they were being censored and warning Australians they were not able to report a story that was in the public interest.

A series of suppression orders had prevented reporting details of the case against Pell since May 2018, with judges arguing they were necessary to avoid prejudicing juries in two scheduled trials of the top Vatican official.

The suppression order was lifted after a second trial due to begin next month was abandoned.

Among those now summoned and threatened with “orders for imprisonment” are Ben English, editor of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, and Michael Stutchbury, editor of the Australian Financial Review – as well as the editors of Melbourne’s two main newspapers.

News organisations cited included Rupert Murdoch’s Nationwide News, Australia’s biggest newspaper group, and Nine Entertainment, which recently bought the country’s second newspaper publisher, Fairfax Media.

A preliminary court date has been set for April 15.