MELBOURNE: Dozens of Australian journalists and news organisations will go on trial in November for allegedly violating a gag order barring coverage of Cardinal George Pell’s sex crimes case, a judge said Tuesday.
Rupert Murdoch’s Nationwide News and the former Fairfax group, now owned by broadcaster Nine, are among 12 companies facing contempt charges along with 18 leading editors and reporters.
If convicted, the journalists face prison terms of up to five years and the media organisations fines of up to Aus$500,000 ($328,000).
The presiding judge issued the gag to prevent news of the court proceedings from prejudicing jurors in what was expected to be a second trial against Pell over his now-quashed conviction for child sex abuse.
The order meant Pell’s December 2018 conviction for allegedly abusing two choirboys in the 1990s could not be reported in Australia, including on the internet.
Local media then ran cryptic articles complaining they were being prevented from reporting on a story of major public interest.
But they were accused of breaching the order and “scandalising the court” with those reports, even though they did not mention Pell or the charges involved.
Press freedom and civil liberties groups say so-called suppression orders are over-used by Australian courts and have failed to take into account changes in the way news is disseminated online and via social media.
The targeted news organisations have vigorously disputed the contempt of court charges.
Some of the defendants were dropped from the case earlier this year.
The gag order was lifted in early 2019 when prosecutors dropped further charges against Pell and the cleric was subsequently acquitted of all charges by Australia’s top court in April this year.
Barrister Matt Collins, representing the media, told the court Tuesday that the journalists “are very anxious for these matters to be resolved finally”.
“It’s been hanging over their heads for far too long,” he said.
Prosecutors want their cases to be heard as a single trial but Collins argued it would be an “injustice” for journalists from rival firms to face trial at the same time as such allegations “would never be heard together” ordinarily.
Judge John Dixon said the case was getting “long in the tooth” and so should go to trial this year if possible.
He pencilled in a “tentative” date of November 9 but left open the door to holding multiple trials.
The case is scheduled to return to court on July 23 for another pre-trial hearing.