Civil Liberties

Wikileaks Aussie Gag Order Revelation Shows a Free Press Is Still an American Thing

Our government officials may be control-freaks, but they can only dream of the powers deployed by their counterparts in many other established "free countries."



To astonishment in Australia, but pretty much a resounding "huh?" in the United States, Wikileaks yesterday published a censorship order issued by the Supreme Court of the Australian state of Victoria on June 19 of this year. The order imposes a five-year ban on publication of any material in Australia about a corruption case involving high officials of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Australian government itself. 

It's an authoritarian move that remains happily alien to Americans who enjoy civil liberties that, however eroded, remain generally superior to what's available even in countries we consider comparable to our own.

Wikileaks puts the order in context, noting:

The court-issued gag order follows the secret 19 June 2014 indictment of seven senior executives from subsidiaries of Australia's central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA). The case concerns allegations of multi-million dollar inducements made by agents of the RBA subsidiaries Securency and Note Printing Australia in order to secure contracts for the supply of Australian-style polymer bank notes to the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries.

The text of the gag order justifies the move "to prevent damage to Australia's international relations."

Well, that sort of thing would be embarrassing, wouldn't it.

As a careful Sydney Morning Herald report on the revelation points out, "The suppression order is itself suppressed. No Australian media organisation can legally publish the document or its contents."

In fact, "anyone who tweets a link to the Wikileaks report, posts it on Facebook, or shares it in any way online could also face charges."

Is it even necessary to point out that this is exactly the sort of story that independent media are supposed to ferret out and expose to the light of day, accompanied by editorials about the moral failings and jailability of the government officials involved?

I've made much of America's slippage on rankings of press freedom, and the United States government's growing habit of concealing information and punishing anybody who speaks to reporters. But we still don't have nation-wide gag orders in this country. 

When Britain's The Guardian was threatened with prosecution for publishing Edward Snowden's revelations about surveillance by the National Security Agency and its U.K. counterpart, the GCHQ, that newspaper teamed up with the New York Times to make sure government officials couldn't block their release. "Journalists in America are protected by the first amendment which guarantees free speech and in practice prevents the state seeking pre-publication injunctions or 'prior restraint,'" Lisa O'Carroll wrote for The Guardian.

And good for us. Our government officials may be grasping, punitive control-freaks, but they can only dream of wielding the bludgeon regularly deployed by their counterparts in many other established "free countries," let alone by governments that don't even pretend that freedom is a local priority.

Censorship orders, like those released by the Victorian court, are certainly unenforceable in the modern Internet age—as demonstrated by Wikileaks. But it's to America's credit that its residents rarely have to pull such end-runs around government gag orders.

It's up to us to keep it that way.