Right to know v right to fair trial case in court

A case described as amongst the most significant to pit the right to a fair trial against the public's right to know opens in the High Court at Wellington tomorrow.

Media company Fairfax New Zealand and the editor of one of the papers' it owns will answer charges of contempt of court bought by Solicitor-General David Collins QC.

Earlier this year Dr Collins initiated proceedings against The Dominion Post's editor Tim Pankhurst and Fairfax over the publication of suppressed police evidence collected during last year's police raids in the Ureweras.

In November a number of Fairfax newspapers ran articles which contained conversations recorded during police surveillance of people they then suspected of terrorism.

Though other Fairfax papers published the same material Pankhurst is the only editor being prosecuted.

The Dominion Post obtained the information, supplied the story to other newspapers in the Fairfax group, as well as the Stuff website, and defended its decision to publish in an editorial.

The newspaper claimed the information came from a leaked 156-page affidavit police used to gain search warrants for the raids.

The newspaper's editorial accompanying the articles said it "(had) not taken lightly the decision" to publish the material.

"We believe we are acting within the law, we also believe we are acting in the public interest."

The police operation was completed on October 15 with 16 people arrested and charged with arms offences.

Police had also sought to introduce terrorism charges but Dr Collins told police he was "unable to authorise" the action.

Dr Collins' contempt application said publishing the suppressed evidence could jeopardise the defendants' right to a fair trial.

Barrister and legal commentator Steven Price, who specialises in media law, described the proceedings to the Dominion Post yesterday as a "line in the sand" case in which the solicitor-general. in his role as a custodian for the integrity of the courts, was signally that the media had gone too far.

"This is pretty major. The stakes are higher than in any other (contempt) case I can think of," he told the newspaper.

The case is set down for one week.

Earlier this month an Auckland District Court judge imposed a blanket suppression order over the depositions hearing for 18 people charged in connection with the so-called "anti-terror" raids.

His ruling prevents the news media from reporting evidence at the preliminary hearing. The hearing is expected to take a month.

- NZPA

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