Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012
necessary to achieve their purpose, recognising the important role that open justice plays in upholding the rule of law,” he said. In its submission to the Senate Committee considering the Bill, the Right to Know Coalition said there were still significant problems that needed to be addressed: “The fundamental problem with suppression and non-publication orders in Australia is that there are too many unjustifiable and unnecessary orders which act as a gag on the media’s ability to report on the justice system. This Bill does not address this problem.” Section 37AG, which specifies grounds for making a suppression order, must include a clause stating that there is “no alternative to the suppression or non-publication order”. However the Bill provides a raft of improvements over current legislation in force in federal and Victorian jurisdictions, as it provides clearer guidelines with respect to: • The grounds on which suppression orders can be made; • What information suppression orders can cover; • How long such orders should last for (the bill requires the court to place a time limit on all orders); • How broad the orders can be; • What information the orders should contain (that is, how precise they need to be); and, • Who can apply to have a suppression order made and who may be heard in opposition – in particular, the standing of the media to intervene is expressly acknowledged. At a meeting of the Standing Committee on Law and Justice in November 2011, ministers noted that South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria would further consider the suppression orders model bill, including court discretion and mutual recognition of orders, and report back to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice (SCLJ, formerly the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, SCAG).
A national register of suppression orders Since 2008, SCAG (now the SCLJ) has been investigating the establishment of a national register of suppression orders in response to long-standing and widespread complaints that journalists are often unaware of what information is subject to non-publication orders. In 2009 SCAG released a proposal for a national register, canvassing two options: a publicly available register and a register with access restricted to authorised persons. The Alliance believes that while there is merit – in the interests of open justice – in a publicly available register, the media and others whose jobs involve providing access to court information should have access to a register with full details of the information that has been suppressed, together with copies of the actual orders made and details of their scope and time limits.
Naming of deceased children In February, the Right to Know Coalition, of which the Media Alliance is a member, made a submission to the NSW attorney-general’s department regarding the prohibition on the naming of deceased children in criminal proceedings. Section 15A(4)(b) of the Children (Criminal Proceedings) Act  extends the prohibition on identification of children involved in criminal proceedings to children that are deceased. The child in this situation is usually the victim, and as unfortunately it’s not uncommon for a relative of the child to be involved in the crime, the name of the accused is often suppressed as revealing their identity would reveal the identity of the deceased child. The media is unable to publish full details once criminal proceedings have commenced. While the child and the accused may be identified during the police investigation, once a relative has been charged with an offence, for the duration of the trial and sentencing, the child and the accused cannot be named. In March 2011, six-year-old Keisha Abrahams went missing from her home in Mt Druitt. Nine months later her mother and stepfather were charged with her murder. Prior to the charges being laid, the event received considerable media coverage, but from the time of the charges being laid until completion of the trial neither Keisha nor the accused could be identified. While the Abrahams case is a recent example, unfortunately it’s not an isolated incident. There have been a number of similar cases in NSW over past few years where the accused (and the victim) have not been identified from the time of charging until the completion of the trial. High-profile cases have been: • Seven-year-old Shellay Ward who died malnourished and starved in 2007 • The grandchildren in Cowra, a boy aged seven and a girl aged five, who together with their grandmother were murdered by their grandfather in 2008 • Two-year-old Dean Shillingsworth, whose body was found in a suitcase in a duckpond in 2008.