What Are Victoria’s New ‘Gag Laws’ For Sexual Assault Victims?

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The names Jill Maegher, Eurydice Dixon and Aiia Maasarwe could completely disappear from the news under new laws that have been proposed in Victoria.

The laws would prevent news outlets from publishing the names of any deceased rape victim, meaning that families couldn’t even speak publicly about their lost loved ones.

So, Why Is This Happening?

This is basically a story about some well-meaning laws that have really missed the mark.

It started in February when a law came into effect that made it illegal for sexual assault survivors to speak publicly without getting permission from a court first.

The general idea was to protect survivors from being exploited by the press.

It was the government’s way of making sure that survivors’ anonymity was protected by regulating who gets named in the news.

Advocacy groups are saying that these new laws have effectively gagged survivors in Victoria, because those who speak out publicly without getting court approval first can risk fines of over $3,000 or four months in jail.

Nina Funnell: “The problem is that all of the onus is being put back on the individual victim survivor to actually have to fight through the court system just to be able to say their own name.

And it’s an incredibly paternalistic and patronising view of sexual assault survivors, to say that they don’t know their own minds, they can’t be trusted to make this decision themselves, and therefore the courts will assume that responsibility on their behalf.”

That’s Nina Funnell. She’s a journalist and creator of the Let Her Speak Campaign, which managed to get similar laws overturned in Tasmania and the Northern Territory earlier this year.

Nina told me that if a survivor does want to get permission from the courts to speak out, it is an incredibly taxing and expensive process.

One young woman who she worked with under the gag laws in Tasmania, racked up about $10,000 in legal fees to get the court order just so that she could publicly identify herself.

But It’s Not Just About The Money

NF: “The much bigger cost is the emotional cost. Because for a lot of sexual assault survivors who have already gone through criminal justice proceedings they’ve already had to face going to court, being cross examined, feeling belittled, feeling humiliated.

To then say to that person, ‘you have to go back to that same court that did that to you, and you have to ask their permission to be able to tell your own story’ … it’s extremely retraumatising.”

Luckily, the Victorian Government listened to complaints from the Let Her Speak campaign and have actually committed to walking back this legislation, through a new bill that’s been introduced to Victorian Parliament recently.

Not so luckily, that new bill has tacked on a whole new set of problems for reporting on victims of sexual violence.

While sexual assault survivors would be allowed to speak without court permission under this new bill, it would make it a criminal offence to name deceased victims of rape in the media unless the family can get court permission.

NF: “It’s not just the media who will be impacted, what’s far worse is the impact it will have on their own grieving relatives.

Because while the media could face an $8,000 fine every time we name Jill Meagher, Jill Meagher’s own family and relatives could face four months jail or fines themselves for their own social media posts naming their daughter or their loved one …. Jill Meagher’s own mother has come out against this. She says that she will fight this law, she says that she is quote, “fucking fuming” and I think she has absolutely every right to be.” 

Jill Hennessy is Victoria’s Attorney General and she said the new laws wouldn’t completely stop the naming of deceased victims by the media, it’s more about trying to get the balance right so that the victim’s wishes can be taken into account.

Nina admits that reporting on victims of sexual violence can be ethically complicated and it’s something we need to talk about but ultimately, she believes that it shouldn’t enter a criminal code.

NF: “It’s exactly the same as if you think about suicide. There was a long time where journalists would report about the method of suicide in suicide cases. Now that hasn’t been criminalised, what’s happened is that the media has been educated.”

The Takeaway

The choice to remain anonymous for sexual assault survivors or by families of victims should absolutely be respected by the media.

The Victorian government is trying to get the balance right and protect those people but in doing so, it’s set up massive legal barriers for people who want to come forward and share their stories, and that is failing thousands of survivors.