The High Court of Australia decided today to continue an injunction restraining two newspapers and a book publisher from publishing leaked government documents on foreign affairs and defense.
The key documents -- which concerned diplomatic messages complaining about American unwillingness to grant Australia more authority over American bases in Australia and criticizing Indonesian leaders for the takeover of East Timor in 1975 -- mainly involved Australian relations with Washington and Jakarta, according to the justice handling the case.
The justice, Sir Anthony Mason, continued the injunction on the sole ground that the government had established a case for absolute ownership of the sensitive documents' copyright.
He rejected the two other grounds on which the Australian government had tried to prevent publication: that they infringed the confidentiality of communications between civil servants and the government and an act prohibiting civil servants from disclosing information.
The two newspapers -- the Sydney Moring Herald and the Melbourne Age -- had printed some excerpts from the book "Documents on Australian Defense and Foreign Policy 1968-1975" before the government stopped the presses with a High Court injunction Nov. 8.
Nearly 100,000 copies of the two papers were delivered before the injunction stopped the presses and close to 100 copies of the book were sold before the original injunction took effect. Justice Mason said today that the U.S. Embassy in Canberra was known to have bought at least one copy of the book and the Indonesian Embassy five copies.
Today's decision prevents further copies of the book from being sold or further excerpts from being printed in the two papers before a trial on the facts of copyright is heard before the supreme court in the state of New South Wales, where two of the three defendants have their headquarters.
Justice Mason said infringement of the copyright rule, which could be unfair against a private author, "may nevertheless be considered fair as against a government merely because it promotes public knowledge and public discussion of government action."
The court threw out the government's claim on the other two grounds with strong words. Mason criticized the Australian Defense Department for its lack of a regular procedure for declassifying documents after they had originally been classified.
"The consequence is that the initial classification lingers on long after the document has ceased to be a security risk," he said. "The contents of some of the documents possibly suggest that disclosure of them would embarrass Australia's relations with other countries and consequently affect their willingness to make available defense and diplomatic information on a confidential basis."
Mason said, however, that he was not persuaded that the potential embarrassment to Australian foreign relations was "enough to justify interim protection of confidential information."
The Australian government's case for confidentiality was based on its claim that it was essential for "national security."