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Australia 17 March 2004

Court rulings support sect’s harassment of freelance journalist

(JPEG) Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today condemned intimidation and harassment of Australian freelance journalist John Macgregor by the Elan Vital sect and a series of rulings by the Queensland supreme court in Elan Vital’s favour which pose a threat to press freedom.

The organisation said it has written to Press Council chairman Ken McKinnon and attorney-general Philip Ruddock asking them to ensure that press freedom is guaranteed in coverage of Elan Vital’s activities.

The supreme court of the northeastern state of Queensland ordered a search of Macgregor’s personal computer in its most recent ruling, on 1st March 2004. Macgregor stated on that occasion that he had been harassed by Australian members of Elan Vital, an international sect led by a guru known as Maharaji.

Macgregor had been unable to speak out previously because he had been subject to an 18-week "gag order" issued by the court in October, banning him from talking or writing about this court case.

The gag order was obtained on 23 October by the law firm Quinn and Scattini acting for Ivory’s Rock Conference Centre (IRCC), a company linked to Elan Vital. At the same time, the law firm obtained permission from the court to search Macgregor’s computer to find out his sources for 11 compromising documents he had received from the husband of a follower of the sect. The ruling was obtained without Macgregor’s knowledge and he would have been in contempt of court if he told anyone about it.

As a result of this ruling, the sect watched Macgregor and threatened him. Two lawyers and a computer technician went to his home in the southwestern city of Perth on 24 October and told him private detectives had been watching him for several days. They threatened to have him arrested if he did not let them check his computer. Macgregor refused to let them do this.

Macgregor appealed against the ruling on 6 November, but it was upheld by the supreme court. As a result, the sect’s lawyers were able to make copies of files and personal emails on Macgregor’s laptop. On 21 November, the court fined Macgregor 2,000 Australian dollars (more than 1,000 euros) and ordered him to pay IRCC’s costs, which could be at least 58,000 Australian dollars (about 35,000 euros).

Macgregor told Reporters Without Borders he is not backed by any news organisation. His lawyer, Ian Cunliffe, will try to obtain a reduction in the amount at the next hearing, on 15 April. But IRCC’s lawyers have undertaken to initiate another lawsuit against Macgregor.

In December, the sect’s lawyer wrote to employers of Macgregor accusing him of stealing documents with the aim of harming Maharaji, the sect’s leader. Macgregor was portrayed as the head of a conspiracy against Elan Vital.

Macgregor told Reporters Without Borders that the lawsuits and the other resources deployed by the sect were aimed at silencing him on the eve of Maharaji’s arrival in Australia next month. A member of the sect in the 1970s, Macgregor wrote several articles for Australian newspapers in 2002, including The West Australian and Good Weekend, accusing the sect and its leader of financial and sexual misconduct.

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