It’s #YourRightToKnow. There are many ways to silence the media: persecution of whistleblowers, defamation threats, contempt of court claims, lobbying of media bosses by powerful interests, injurious falsehood claims, the government’s draconian secrecy laws and police raids on journalists. MICHAEL WEST reports on the latest abuse against free speech.
This week we can unveil yet another threat to freedom of speech: the Personal Safety Intervention Order (PSIO), a court order that is intended to help victims of domestic violence but instead is being abused as a tool to harass journalists, namely Sandi Keane, editor of michaelwest.com.au.
Known as restraining orders or apprehended violence orders in other states, the PSIO in Victoria is now being used by those who wish to both annoy people and avoid the media spotlight.
The PSIO works like a combination of a suppression order and an injunction. It costs nothing for the applicant but thousands of dollars to fight and remove. And it has the added bonus for the applicant of having one’s history wiped from all electronic media from the date of the summons.
Victoria is already the “gag order” capital of Australia, its courts awarding suppression orders far in excess of all other states. On top of this rampant granting of injunctions to stop media reporting on critical public interest cases such as the George Pell proceedings, PSIOs are on the rise.
In 2008-09, the number of PSIO applications was 7333. The latest figures, for 2017-18, show a staggering increase with 27,606 listings.
There have been some reports about the abuse of PSIOs in Victoria by those seeking malicious revenge. Keane is believed to be the first journalist to be silenced in this way. She’s attended court seven times after receiving two orders and has been threatened with a third.
“An intervention order is now a sure fire way to shut down a story,” Keane said.
“Getting an intervention order in Victoria is instant and cost-free (no lawyer required).”
The two essential criteria are for applicants to claim they have been threatened and are suffering mental stress as result.
An interim order will be issued immediately against anyone in Australia.
Keane says the applicants lied about the threats but no evidence was needed until the final contested hearing some 12 to 18 months later.
The effect on public interest reporting therefore is chilling as most news is time-critical, so by the time the story might eventually be published, its news value might have evaporated.
There are no consequences for abusing the legal system and costs cannot be claimed by the respondent in the proceedings.
The applicant can also manipulate the date of the final hearing as a magistrate will only set a date for the final hearing if both sides have had a chance to get a lawyer; are ready for the hearing; or agree to the date.
Furthermore, court reporters cannot report on an intervention order unless they withhold the name of the court and names of the relevant parties.
So, not only does an intervention order trump an injunction in the High Court with all its attendant costs and adverse publicity, it also ticks the suppression order box.
Yet the sting in the tail is that, from the date of the interim order, all references to the “protected person” must be deleted from any media site including social media (condition 10).
Journalists can forget about getting another colleague to publish the story as this is prohibited under condition 8.
Breaching the order risks a criminal conviction or prison sentence.
Journalists union, the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA), has met with the Victorian Attorney General with the hope of amending the Personal Safety Intervention Order Act to protect freedom of the press. In a letter to the chief magistrate, the MEAA wrote: “This is a dangerous assault on press freedom, has a chilling effect on legitimate journalism in the public interest and undermines the public’s right to know.”
Editor’s Note: Keane’s investigation was into the fraudsters operating in the pedigree dog industry. She was successful in contesting one of these orders. The unsuccessful applicant in this case had served a jail sentence for fraud and was also found guilty of arson. The other applicant also has a conviction for fraud. These two people have taken out five PSIOs that we know of. The others were granted against people who had taken legal action against them, made an official complaint or given evidence against them.
The rise of PSIOs, and their abuse, coincides with the rise in other forms of suppression of free speech in Australia, by all three branches of government: the judiciary, the executive and the legislature.