ICE blogs

March 4, 2010

Venables injunction ‘an alarming gag on the press’

Filed under: Blogroll, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, human rights — news_editor @ 3:56 pm

Barry Turner, senior lecturer in media law at the University of Lincoln, argues that the worldwide injunction on the reporting of one of Jamie Bulger’s killers represents an extraordinary attack on the freedom of the press

In an article on AOL news (3 March 2010) it was reported that one of the killers of Jamie Bulger has been returned to prison for breaches of his parole licence. Jon Venables had allegedly repeatedly breached the terms of his release from prison.

The case is important for all reporters in that a phenomenon known as the injunction contra mundum was employed upon Venables’ release from prison preventing the media from either reporting his whereabouts or the new identity given to protect him from revenge attacks. This ‘worldwide injunction’ purports to prevent the publication of any story, anywhere in the world that would either identify Venables or identify where he is now living.

In a conversation with a spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), I was told that it makes a mockery of our courts if a journalist can report a story prohibited in the UK to a foreign newspaper that may then be read here. The MoJ spokesperson then said that it did not, of course, have the jurisdiction to prosecute a foreign journalist. However, if a foreign newspaper published such a story, the MoJ would investigate how they acquired the information and if it was found to have come from a British journalists or news agency then they would prosecute them. It might, of course, be possible for the MoJ to employ the foreign courts to use a domestic injunction forcing the disclosure of sources.

The concept that a British court can extend its jurisdiction in this way to effectively gag the foreign press is an alarming one. Concepts of freedom of speech vary widely between different jurisdictions and Britain already has a number of laws constraining the ‘free press’. It is rather odd that we should impose our ideas as to what can and cannot be reported on other countries with quite different and sometimes constitutionally protected freedoms of the press.

The concept of a ‘worldwide injunction’ is not only contrary to common sense in that our courts have no legal right to impose reporting restrictions on foreign newspapers but it fundamentally defeats the object for which the law of equity introduced the injunction in the first place.

The rationale of the MoJ is understandable. It does not like to see the authority of our courts undermined. The rationale behind hiding Jon Venables is also clear. Despicable he may be but we always place rights to life above freedom of expression. That does not make it any more comfortable to hear ministers arrogantly announcing that the world may not be told this story. The press has an essential role to play in monitoring the justice system and it is quite right that the public has a right to know of the activities of a murderer released on licence.The ‘worldwide injunction’ is an example of neo colonialism and further threatens the freedom of the press.

How would our Justice Minister and our Home Secretary respond to Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, obtaining an injunction in a Harare court injuncting the worlds press from calling him a criminal and a despot? Would our courts be prepared to allow an injunction requiring identification of all of those in Zimbabwe who were giving stories to the British media? Of course not! But then again, we are civilised aren’t we?

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