Cook Islands Herald Publisher Faces Contempt Of Court Charges

In failing health, PItt also faces civil case for various articles

By Florence Syme-Buchanan 

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Nov. 3, 2016) – If the Crown Law Office gets its way, Cook Islands publisher and self-described “innovative” journalist George Pitt will be found guilty of contempt of court for two articles he’s written and will serve a prison sentence after the civil case is heard on November 30.

Backing Crown Law are police and the Cook Islands Law Society with affidavits provided by Detective Inspector Areumu Ingaua and Law Society president Wilkie Rasmussen, who is also a trained journalist.

Pitt is named as the first respondent, with Cook Islands Television and Elijah Communications second and third respondents respectively.

The Crown Law-driven litigation could effectively shut down CITV and the Cook Islands Herald weekly newspaper.

At the centre of Crown Law’s action are two articles Pitt wrote in his typically opinionated, colourful and unapologetic style.

The first, an opinion piece headed, “Prosecution turns Bishop trial into a fabricated farce,” was published in the Herald on July 13.

Solicitor General David James said the article created a real risk of interference with the fairness of the trial of Teina Bishop” which was then taking place before Justice Colin Doherty and an 11-man jury.

The second article, headed “Jury of 11 for Bishop trial,” was published on July 6 and was described by James as a “scurrilous attack on the competence or the capacity for impartiality of the trial judge.”

However, Pitt says he is “mystified” at the lengths the Crown Law office has gone to, saying that in the July 6 publication he had actually praised Judge Doherty, describing him as “experienced”. He had also mentioned in the article that the judge had presided over the high profile Operation Eagle drug trial.

In the second article Pitt quoted excerpts from a 2012 item posted on the “Who’s Judging the Judges” blog that criticised and made fun of Justice Doherty.

He defends doing that, saying Justice Doherty had “ignored” the blog and had never made any attempts to have it taken down.

And he says the entire exercise is a waste of energy. “He (James) thinks by having me convicted of this stupid charge he’s going to make a name for himself?”

Pitt says he believes the country could do without the international exposure the contempt case will get, especially after being in the world spotlight recently for three violent deaths.

But Crown Law, says Pitt, doesn’t act on its own initiative.

“It needs instructions and obviously the Solicitor General is acting on instructions from the Attorney General (prime minister Henry Puna).

Asked why he thought the PM would instigate litigation against him, Pitt responded “because he’s Pontius Pilate.

“He never gets his hands dirty, he tries to keep his hands clean, saying, ‘it’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me’, so he gets other people to do the dirty work.”

The Crown Law office may have also been additionally spurred to action after the Solicitor General was alerted by Ingaua to a CITV ad promoting the “fabrication” story published in the Cook Islands Herald.

The newspaper article was shown to Justice Doherty during the trial. The judge reminded the jury of his earlier caution that they must avoid reading newspapers and watching television.

Pitt challenges Ingaua to explain how he managed to prepare a four-page affidavit when the senior police officer repeatedly tells the publisher he doesn’t have time to update him on a complaint made over a year ago.

That complaint involved the group of Manihiki land claimants who threatened to damage government property on the island if they weren’t paid for government’s utilisation of private land as promised to them by the prime minister. Pitt said the group were extortionists and their actions were illegal and should’ve been treated as such by police. The 65-year old is a prolific columnist for the Herald which is owned by Elijah Communications, a company Pitt formed in 1997 with himself, a sister, two brothers and ex-wife as directors and shareholders. Scathing in many of his articles about politicians and senior public servants, Pitt has been known to also fiercely attack high profile people in the community. Describing his journalistic style as “innovative” Pitt professes to have “created a style of journalism which is really artistic.”

Suffering from poor health, the publisher warns the Solicitor General about possible jail time.

“If they want to put me in jail and my health suffers there will be huge repercussions for government and there will be litigation.”

Pitt says a triple bypass, arthritis in both knees and a several other ailments prevent him from being able to climb the stairs to the court house. Claiming to survive only on the old age pension because he doesn’t get paid a salary by his media corporation, Pitt says he can’t afford a lawyer.

“This stupid nonsense is to make me spend money to defend myself and run around…well I don’t have any money and I can’t run around.”

In a letter to Pitt, James wrote that the two articles “…constitute conduct that interferes with the administration of justice and that brings a Justice of the High Court into contempt.”

“The inferential statement that the prosecution case was fabricated is particularly serious; especially when the trial was in progress when it was published.”

James wrote that he thought it necessary to “…give the court an opportunity to consider whether these articles are contempt, by any one or more of.”

He accused Pitt of insulting a Justice of the Court, adding that it was sometimes referred to as “scandalising the court” and that Pitt had improperly sought to influence the jury.

James said applying to the court was the only recourse as there were no other legal processes to regulate the media here.

A media council, usually chaired by a judge, is usually the avenue to settling public complaints about the media. However, Law Society president Rasmussen said the society’s efforts to have concerns addressed through the council had failed as it had been disbanded some years ago. 

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