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Australian media face court over coverage of Pell trial

Cardinal George Pell (Getty)

Some of the country's biggest outlets are accused of breaching a gagging order forbidding reporting of the trial

More than 30 Australian journalists and publishers faced court on Monday over their coverage of the trial of Cardinal George Pell for sex abuse offences. Prosecutors in the state of Victoria accuse them of breaching a strict gagging order forbidding them from reporting the trial while it was still ongoing.

Among those facing charges are some of Australia’s largest media groups, including Nine Entertainment Co, the Age, the Australian Financial Review, Macquarie Media, and various News Corp publications.

Organisations and individuals who breach suppression orders can face up to five years in jail and fines of up to 96,000 Australian dollars.

Cardinal Pell was found guilty in December of abusing two choir boys, but the suppression order remained in place while a second trial for separate accusations took place.

After the end of the first trial, some Australian media reported that an unnamed high-profile person had been convicted a serious crime, but did not name Pell nor state the charges. Some overseas media ignored the gagging order and reported the full story.

Defence barrister Matthew Collins, representing all 36 defendants, said the case was unprecedented in Australian legal history.

“They didn’t reference the cardinal – just referred to the fact that there was a broader story that could not be told.”

However, prosecutors say their coverage “aided and betted the overseas media’s contempt” of the gagging order. Non-Australian outlets are not facing charges.

Steven Butler, from of the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told Reuters: “Gag orders are futile in a case of global interest in the digital age.”

“We urge Australian authorities to drop these proceedings and to re-examine the application of such suppression orders,” he added.

Reporting restrictions were finally lifted in February when the second trial collapsed.