News National Sexual assault survivors slam gag laws: ‘We disempower people when we tell them to be quiet’
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Sexual assault survivors slam gag laws: ‘We disempower people when we tell them to be quiet’

Sexual assault survivors have slammed gag laws that make it illegal for victims to speak out.
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A controversial law gagging abuse survivors will be rewritten following backlash, but victims’ advocates remain concerned.

Victoria’s Attorney-General Jill Hennessy promised on Friday that amendments allowing victim-survivors to tell their stories without needing a court order would be introduced to parliament this year.

The law, which was implemented in February, puts the state at odds with the rest of the nation, where such laws have been repealed to make it easier for survivors to speak out.

But campaigners said they were cautious about the Victorian government’s announcement.

Founder of Bravehearts Hetty Johnston has spent more than two decades championing the rights of sexually abused children.

Mrs Johnston said the trust between the government and advocates was broken.

“We’ll have to wait for the fine print to see how it turns up. There’ll be a lot more eyes and we’ll watch it carefully,” she said.

There are innocent children, women, and men who have been assaulted and they need to have their voices heard without impediment.”

The gag laws, of which Victoria’s is the last in the nation, help pedophiles and perpetrators, Mrs Johnston said.

“We disempower people when we tell them to be quiet. It immediately translates to telling them they’ve got something to be ashamed of,” she said.

“Silence is the pedophile’s best friend and our kids’ worst enemy. We don’t want to entrench this in legislation.”

Ms Johnston went public after her daughter was sexually assaulted by her grandfather and said that if gag laws had been in place in Queensland she would have ended up in jail instead of starting a charity for survivors.

“At the time I spoke out, they would have taken me to court and thrown me in jail,” she said.

“They were adamant that speaking out was going to put my daughter in danger. But it’s not speaking out, it’s the secret that that hurts people.

“It disempowers people.”

Campaigners remain concerned

Campaigners are worried that the Victorian government could adopt the “halfway” approach of the NT, where survivors are still banned from talking about sexual assault if any proceeding, including appeals, are ongoing.

“What is of most concern is the NT government took a halfway approach,” Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy chair Rachael Burgin said.

That is a protection for rapists and pedophiles no matter which way you slice it.”

“And that’s one of the key concerns about Victoria’s response so far.”

The current Victorian law means that victims wishing to speak publicly about their assault must request permission from a court, which activists said could cost more than $10,000 in fees.

Victims face fines of up to $3304 and four months in jail if they do not comply with the court process.

Dr Burgin said the fact the law passed the Victorian parliament with bipartisan support was disturbing.

“The fact that nobody spoke up for survivors of sexual violence in the process of this legislation becoming law is concerning,” she said.

“What Jill Hennessy said on Friday … we welcome that, we want to hear that.

“However, the concern is the government to date have not adequately responded to the specific issue with this legislation.”