After WikiLeaks released a secret gag order in Australia blocking the country’s media from reporting on a massive political corruption scandal, international leaders are evading culpability and scrambling to control the narrative.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose name was included in the gag order, denied involvement in the case and asked Australia to be transparent in its investigation, which implicates several Australian bank executives and international heads of state in a multi-million dollar bribery scheme.
“We are shocked by the report by WikiLeaks,” Yudhoyono said in a press conference. “Given the facts I have obtained, the report is hurtful.”
The court order, issued by the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne, blocked news agencies from reporting on the investigation looking into subsidiaries of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and government officials in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. RBA subsidiaries Securency and Note Printing Australia are accused of paying off high-ranking officials from 1999 to 2004 to secure the supply of Australian-style polymer bank notes to the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries.
Known as a “superinjunction,” the order blocks reporting on the order itself, as well as the content of the investigation. At the time it was issued, the court claimed that publicizing the case may put “national security” at risk or jeopardize Australia’s international relationships.
“Neither Megawati nor I were yet president in 1999. But my point is, whoever the president was at that time, the decision to print the banknotes in Australia had nothing to do with the government and the president,” Yudhoyono said.
The rhetoric from both Indonesia and Australia has focused on shifting attention away from the names in the investigation, rather than addressing the case itself. The Indonesian embassy in Australia issued a press statement on Thursday claiming that the gag order was simply meant to “[protect] the senior political figures from the risk of unwarranted innuendo,” and promised to pursue legal action against WikiLeaks.
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“We take the breach of the suppression orders extremely seriously and we are referring it to the police,” the statement read. “This is a long-running, complicated case which names a large number of individuals. The naming of such figures in the orders does not imply wrongdoing on their part.”
Yudhoyono said the court order could “trigger suspicions and accusations” and demanded that the Australian government issue a statement clearing his and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s names. “I ask that Australia issue a statement that both Megawati and my names are unstained, and so they do not defame other Indonesian officials,” he said. “We want to hear directly from Australia.”
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Yudhoyono later tweeted, “The Government of Australia should not issue policies or statements that may raise suspicion about people who are outside Australia.”
Following the leak on Wednesday, Australia’s journalists union and Human Rights Watch called for a review of the gag order. Australian media outlets are still forbidden by law from reporting on the order even as it becomes international news.
Arguing against the court’s justification for issuing the order, Human Rights Watch general counsel Dinah PoKempner said that the “embarrassment of diplomatic partners is not the same thing as a threat to national security,” according to the Guardian. “Secret law is often unaccountable and inadequately justified,” PoKempner said, adding, “diplomatic embarrassment cannot justify withholding information relating to serious criminal activity from the public.”
CNN spoke to Peter Bartlett, a media lawyer from Minter Ellison law firm in Melbourne, who said that if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange “ever [came] back to Australia, you would expect that he would immediately be charged with breaking a suppression order.”
However, Assange is unlikely to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has lived for the past two years after Ecuador granted him political asylum on the grounds that he faces extradition and persecution in the U.S.
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