Critics are calling it an attempt to protect shady officials at the expense of Australian press freedom and public scrutiny.
An Australian court has banned journalists from reporting on a corruption scandal involving its Reserve Bank and high-ranking government officials — including current and former prime ministers — of three leading Asian economies.
But WikiLeaks has stepped in to ensure Australians find out about the controversy.
In its highest-profile coup since blowing the lid off the NSA spy scandal, WikiLeaks has published what it says is a Victorian Supreme Court order banning Australian media coverage of the case — or even reporting on the order’s existence.
The gag order has prompted comically Orwellian articles in the Australian media, stating that WikiLeaks has released the “text of a secret court order that cannot be published in Australia,” as the Sydney Morning Herald put it.
(If you’re in Australia, read on at your own risk.)
According to WikiLeaks, the case relates to the indictment of senior executives from subsidiaries of the Reserve Bank, Australia’s central bank. The subsidiaries, Note Printing Australia and Securency, are engaged in a highly sensitive, revenue generating operation that prints currency for countries around the world.
The confidential case alleges that officials offered multi-million dollar inducements to secure lucrative contracts to supply Australian-style plastic bank notes to Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, WikiLeaks reports. The case also involves illicit deals to print money for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The alleged suppression order, published on the whisteblower website, names Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in addition to both the president and prime minister of Vietnam. Also named are high-ranking current and former Malaysian cabinet ministers covering trade, foreign affairs and finance.
News of the injunction was met with outrage in the Indonesian presidential office, with the government demanding an explanation from Australia as to why its president and senior officials had been implicated.
"The [Australian] Government considers that the suppression orders remain the best means for protecting the senior political figures from the risk of unwarranted innuendo," according to a statement released July 31 by the Australian Embassy in Indonesia. "The naming of such figures in the orders does not imply wrongdoing on their part. The Government stresses that the Indonesian President and the former President are not the subject of the Securency proceedings."
Australian courts, however, would be unlikely to have jurisdiction over foreign heads of state on such a matter. It remains unclear whether the court case involves any allegations of wrongdoing on the part of the senior political figures named.
The court order released by WikiLeaks also bans the publication of an affidavit affirmed in June by Gillian Bird, a top-ranking Australian diplomat whose duties includes looking after Australia’s relations with Asia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently announced that Bird will serve as Australia’s next ambassador to the United Nations.
The order states the media blackout is in relation to issues of “national security” and to “prevent damage to Australia’s international relations.”
However WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hit out at the Australian government, saying the ban was about preventing embarrassment, not about preventing national security breaches.
“With this order, the worst in living memory, the Australian government is not just gagging the Australian press, it is blindfolding the Australian public. This is not simply a question of the Australian government failing to give [this case] the public scrutiny it is due.
“The concept of ‘national security’ is not meant to serve as a blanket phrase to cover up serious corruption allegations involving government officials, in Australia or elsewhere.
“It is in the public interest for the press to be able to report on this case, which concerns the subsidiaries of the Australian central bank. Who is brokering our deals, and how are we brokering them as a nation?
“Corruption investigations and secret gag orders for ‘national security’ reasons are strange bedfellows.”
Assange has been living at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since seeking political asylum there in 2012 following allegations of sexual assault in Sweden and the fallout over the publication of the so-called war logs.
In a sign that super injunctions are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the digital age, the case has already been reported online around the world, including in Malaysia. It’s also set #WikiLeaks alight on Twitter.
According to WikiLeaks, the blanket suppression order is the first major media gag issued in Australia since 1995, when the then-Labor government moved to suppress revelations of US-Australian spying at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra.
However a recent report published in the Sydney Law Review found that suppression orders were relatively common in Victoria, with the Australian journalists' union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, describing Victoria as the "stand out overachiever in suppressing the media's reporting."