Social media users in Australia could be charged with a crime for sharing any details of a gag order published by Wikileaks this week on Facebook or Twitter. The gag order bans journalists from mentioning a number of officials with relation to an international corruption probe.
Wikileaks published the information Tuesday. The gag order’s legal weight allows the government to press charges for mention of any individuals listed – a total of 17 – on media outlets in relation to an international, multi-million dollar corruption case. The individuals protected include “any current or former Prime Minister of Malaysia,” “Truong Tan San, currently President of Vietnam,” “Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (also known as SBY), currently President of Indonesia (since 2004),” and a former president of Indonesia. Julian Assange, who continues to head Wikileaks, called the order “the worst in history.”
The order bans publication of these names with relation to the case in any media. It also bans publication of any information within the gag order itself, creating an almost comical situation for Australian media that must now cover the Wikileaks release without telling their audiences what the release is. On ABC News’s PM Radio, for example, host Mark Colvin began his report by explaining, “We begin with a story widely available in other countries and all over the Internet, but PM is legally prohibited from telling it to you.” The Sydney Morning Herald covered the story but explained, “The suppression order is itself suppressed. No Australian media organisation [sic] can legally publish the document or its contents.”
The gag order does not extend exclusively to mass media. It prevents any “publication,” which means that ordinary Australians who post online that, say, every current and former Prime Minister of Malaysia is on this list could be prosecuted.
According to Media lawyer Peter Bartlett, who spoke to Australia’s The Age (but without mentioning the contents of the gag order, of course), while it is unlikely, it is possible that a social media user could be prosecuted. As the publication explains, “anyone who tweets a link to the Wikileaks report, posts it on Facebook, or shares it in any way online could also face charges.”
As for Wikileaks itself, the disparate nature of the organization makes it difficult for Australian government officials to prosecute them – even Julian Assange, who is an Australian citizen. “Unless someone within Australia somehow authorised or was deemed to have published that suppression order on Wikileaks it would be difficult to find someone to prosecute,” said Bartlett.