Names found online despite judge’s ruling

You can rule, but you can't hide

A judge’s order preventing publication of the names of two defendants in a murder prosecution on the internet has been less than successful, according to Law Commissioner John Burrows.

A brief online search after the order was made brought to light 95 mentions of the defendants’ names, he told last week’s Privacy Issues Forum. While it appears most of the sources were based overseas and therefore not strictly in breach of the ruling, Burrows could not say definitely that none was on a server in New Zealand.

Mike O’Donnell, head of commercial and regulatory affairs at TradeMe, said last Wednesday the site had so far had to remove three disclosures of the names from its bulletin boards.

Many NZ-based websites, he says, would not have the resources that TradeMe has for checking continuously the content of its forums, and some locally originated mentions of the names may slip through.

Judge David Harvey made the unusual order last month, banning the publication online of the names of the two men accused of the murder of 14-year-old John Hapeta. The order does not apply to print, radio and television, which may publish the names.

The core of the judge’s rationale is that “contemporaneous” release of the names through mainstream media plants them in the public’s minds “only as long as the newspaper lasts or the television or radio broadcasts are recalled”.

Online publication would allow the names and accompanying information to be called back effortlessly many months later and they can easily be spread in a “viral” way to many websites, he says.

“Even more disturbing, it may well be that events or further confirmed factual information may have overtaken the validity of some of the assertions or speculations that may be made in early news stories.”

This may handicap a fair trial, says Judge Harvey, as an adult and a youth were jointly charged, the hearing was conducted in the Youth Court. Names are normally suppressed in such cases and the judge was exercising his discretion in the release of the names to any media, he says.

Discussion of the ruling has been extensive in online forums, with some contributors in sympathy with the judge’s decision but many opposed or professing incomprehension. Others discussed technical ways of posting the names and avoiding detection.

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