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A gag order (also known as a gagging order or suppression order) is an order, sometimes a legal order by a court or government, other times a private order by an employer or other institution, restricting information or comment from being made public, or in some cases, passed onto a third party, for the purpose of "hiding" or "covering up" or "white-washing" compromising, questionable, deceptive practices, fraud, or other illegal activities with the help of the legal process itself, or to protect the privacy of victims or minors. Gag orders are most commonly used to conceal information from the public. In some cases, gag orders may be used, for example, to keep legitimate trade secrets of a company. Or, to protect the integrity of ongoing police or military operations. Conversely, as their downside, they are often also abused as a useful tool for those of financial means to intimidate witnesses and prevent release of information in a legal fashion without resorting directly to violence, or other methods of more heightened intimidation. Sometimes corporations or other entities of financial means will also use Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) to prevent potential witnesses from speaking against them.
Legitimate claims for use of a gag order include, for instance, a criminal court may issue a gag order on the media if the judge believes, or claims to believe, that potential jurors in a future trial will be influenced by the media reporting or speculation on the early stages of a case. Another example might be to ensure police are not impeded in their investigations by media publicity about a case.
Gag orders are often used against participants involved in a lawsuit or criminal trial. They are also a tool to prevent media from publishing unwanted information on a particular topic.
After the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which live streaming of the event was broadcast, the Indian government proposed a draft law that would gag media outlets broadcasting live pictures during a terrorist event or war, to ensure the safety of any hostages and to protect security operations from hindrance. This has been opposed by Indian media who argue that they have adopted 'self-regulation' during such events and refrain from doing so anyway. It is uncertain if the draft law will be passed or not.
In late 2009 Israel issued a gag order against the Israeli media reporting on facts surrounding the Anat Kamm – Uri Blau affair. The gag order was ultimately subject to widespread criticism and publicity as the details of the case were reported overseas. The scandal centered around leaked documents from the Israeli Defense Force which suggested the military had engaged in extrajudicial killings.
A gag order concerning the Prisoner X affair prevented Israeli coverage of the topic for more than two years. After numerous foreign media outlets revealed the prisoner's identity and other key facts in February 2013, a court partially lifted the gag order, allowing Israeli media to quote foreign press reports but offer no original reporting.
There was speculation that a gag order may be imposed by the MCA on their press statements before they are released to the public to "ensure maximum effectiveness". Such releases would have to be approved by the president. These claims in the media were later denied.
A Bill was introduced before the Puerto Rican Senate which would restrain the rights of the independence and nationalist movements in the island. The Senate at the time was controlled by the PPD and presided by Luis Muñoz Marín. The Bill, also known as the "Ley de la Mordaza" (Gag Law) was approved by the Puerto Rican legislature on 21 May 1948. It made it illegal to display a Puerto Rican flag, to sing a patriotic tune, to talk of independence, and to fight for the liberation of the island. The Bill which resembled the anti-communist Smith Law passed in the United States, was signed and made into law on 10 June 1948, by the U.S.-appointed governor of Puerto Rico, Jesús T. Piñero and became known as "Ley 53" (Law 53). In accordance to the new law, it would be a crime to print, publish, sale, to exhibit or organize or to help anyone organize any society, group or assembly of people whose intentions are to paralyze or destroy the insular government. Anyone accused and found guilty of disobeying the law could be sentenced to ten years of prison, be fined $10,000 dollars (US) or both. According to Leopoldo Figueroa, a member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, the law was repressive and was in violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution which guarantees Freedom of Speech. He pointed out that the law as such was a violation of the civil rights of the people of Puerto Rico.
A national security letter, an administrative subpoena used by the FBI, has an attached gag order which restricts the recipient from ever saying anything about being served with one. The government has issued hundreds of thousands of such NSLs accompanied with gag orders. The gag orders have been upheld in court.
In the United States, a court can order parties to a case not to comment on it but has no authority to stop unrelated reporters from reporting on a case. Most statutes which restrict what may be reported have generally been found unconstitutional and void. However, the gag provisions of the WIPO Copyright and Performances and Phonograms Treaties Implementation Act have been upheld.
The trials of Guantanamo Bay suspects have also been subjected to a gag order, which has hindered public scrutiny. Likewise, as part of a plea bargain John Walker Lindh consented to a gag order to not talk to the press or others.
A gag order has been used to protect 'national security'. In the Allan Chappelow murder case, the trial was held mostly in camera and media were prevented from speculating on the case. The order was imposed after a "compelling case" made by prosecutors, despite overwhelming media opposition brought by a legal challenge to the ruling. This criminal case has been thought to be the first in which a gagging order was imposed.
According to WikiLeaks, "the Guardian [has] been served with 10 secret gag orders —so-called "super-injunctions"— [between January and September 2009]. In 2008, the paper was served with six. In 2007, five."
In Spring 2011, gagging orders, or "super-injunctions" as they were called, were being referred to almost daily in the United Kingdom after a number of high-profile public figures, including celebrities and politicians, censored the British media from revealing information about their personal lives, such as affairs and dealings with prostitutes.