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Newspaper publisher charged with contempt of court for reporting on trial

(PINA/IFEX) - Newspaper publisher John Woods was convicted in the Rarotonga High Court on two charges of contempt of court, reports Cook Island News. Fines amounting to approx. US$60 and court costs were imposed on Woods.

The convictions were handed down against the 55-year-old Arorangi resident by Justice of the Peace John Kenning. Both charges relate to the breach of a gag order handed down by Justice Christine Grice on the morning of 23 May 2008. The gag order related to a land dispute case (the Manihiki matter) and applied to all evidence and documents presented in an appeal hearing on 22 May.

Woods was charged with breaching the order, in that he was responsible for publishing two stories in the newspaper in May featuring statements from lawyer Tina Browne, the lawyer for the landowners in the Manihiki matter.

The original "not guilty" pleas made during Woods' first appearance were replaced later with pleas of guilty, under the guidance of lawyer Charles Little.

Given the chance to address the court, Woods said the case was important as it struck at the very heart of media freedom and the role of the fourth estate. He said the breach was accidental and the order made by the court was not explicit.

Woods told the court that the charges against him were part of a "vindictive pursuit by prosecution".

Woods raised the issue that a gag order had not been requested by the prosecution when the evidence was presented to the court on 22 May.

He said that it was "most unorthodox" and "remiss" of the prosecution not to have acted on the day, instead of seeking the order the next day.

Woods said the prosecutor should have spoken up on that day and done so in front of Browne, as neither she nor justice secretary Terry Hagan were aware of the gag order and both had breached it by making statements to CINews. In reply to this, crown prosecutor Tingika Elikan said that it was actually Justice Grice, not the prosecution, who called back counsel to court on 23 May to request the gag order.

Woods said that if the media did not "push the envelope" and publish on matters in the public interest, society would return to the dark ages in terms of media freedom, much as in the case of Fiji and Papua New Guinea, where bureaucrats tell media what they can and cannot publish.

Doing such a thing, said Woods, "amounts to interference and heavy-handedness, and brings to its knees the whole principle of democracy and freedom of speech."

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