Embargoes and the public domain

Press comment on anticipated Vatican leak

In our news round-up of 3 April we reported that the Vatican had announced that Pope Francis’s highly-anticipated post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love) on love in the family would be released on Friday 8 April. Whilst the text of the Apostolic Exhortation in Italian, French, English, German, Spanish and Portuguese (in paper and/or digital format) will be available to accredited journalists from 8.00 am on Friday 8 April 2016, “Amoris laetitia” is to be considered under embargo until 12 noon CET on that day.

Reader may recall that, last year, pre-release copies of the Papal Encyclical Laudato Si’ were leaked to the Italian journalist Sandro Magister when his publication, l’Espresso, published the text three days ahead of its release, Dr Magister was accused of violating the embargo and, as a consequence, had his Vatican press credentials temporarily suspended, although at the time of its suspension there was no indication on how long this would last. The events surrounding the leaked document are reported here and a fuller version of the story and its impact on other journalists was reported in The Guardian.

Article in Crux

On 3 April, John L Allen Jr, the Editor of Crux , published A refresher on embargoes ahead of new papal document in which he anticipated a repetition of the Laudato Si’ leak and gave “a brief refresher about what the word ’embargo’ actually means in journalistic practice”. Significantly, the article was endorsed by Dr Ed Peters on his Canon Law Facebook page. 

Aside from the Roman Catholic moral perspective on the ethics of whether it is acceptable to publish a papal text before the Pope himself releases it, Allen examined what the term means to journalists “striving to abide by the accepted ethical standards of the profession”. He suggests that in this context “embargo” is a journalistic concept, and argues that for journalists, the question of whether there’s any embargo on information arises entirely from the circumstances under which it is obtained.


So what has this to do with Law & Religion UK, given that the content and application of  Amoris laetitia are likely to be interest only to some of our readers? The issue raised by John Allen is this: how material that is not currently in the public domain is accessed and used by blogs such as L&RUK and elsewhere in the published media.

At one level, early access to material is encouraged by governmental, faith-based and other organizations as a means of ensuring that a particular news item receives wide coverage once it has been formally delivered. However, this is not the case where an embargo is breached and sensitive material is made available in the public domain, or material which the organization wishes to remain confidential is released.

With regard to the former, Allen argues that “there’s only an embargo if your source says there is. Neither the Vatican nor anyone else has the authority to bind you to an embargo if they’re not the ones who gave you the information in the first place”. He continues:

“The Laudato Si’ case is instructive … In reality, it was impossible for [Sandro Magister and l’Espresso] to have violated any official Vatican restriction, because the Vatican Press Office did not release the text to journalists under embargo until 48 hours after l’Espresso published – which means, of course, l’Espresso got it through other channels. We have no way of knowing if the source who passed the information imposed any restrictions in terms of when it could be used, but if l’Espresso and Magister violated anyone’s embargo, it certainly couldn’t have been the Vatican’s.”

However, we would add that the Laudato Si’ is also instructive in that Fr Lombardi’s notification of the removal of Magister’s Vatican press accreditation on 15 June 2015 was worded a tempo indeterminato – a significant sanction for a Vaticanista.

As a consequence of the concerns raised by the Vatileaks-I scandal, the criminal law of Vatican City State was modified in July 2013 to include, inter alia, a new article 116b regarding the theft of documents by Vatican employees. The current Vatileaks-II trial due to commence today [6 April] concerns three former Vatican insiders were charged with crimes under Vatican law for leaking those documents and two journalists charged for pressuring them to do so.

Here on L&RUK we take the pragmatic view that to be of any practical academic use an item should be freely available. We assume that if something is accessible via an Internet search it is “in the public domain”. With regard to Laudato Si’, our pre-publication post referred to the leaked draft and indicated that readers who were anxious to see the draft could locate it with a couple of clicks of the mouse. Although we accessed the draft, rather than struggle with its 187 pages (in Italian) which may not have proved to be the final version, we waited for the official version in English, but checked some of the points against the original Italian.

With regard to embargoed material, we take the opposite view from that expressed in Crux and we would never, ever break an embargo, regardless of whether we had received the document from a third party rather than its originator. Likewise with regard to confidential documents such as working drafts and letters & reports with restricted circulation: although they may assist our thinking in a particular area, we would not dream of making direct reference to them unless or until they were within the public domain.

Returning to Amoris laetitia, to date there have been no directly leaks prior to the end of the embargo at 12 noon CET on Friday 8 April. However, an article in the Catholic Herald indicates that “according to a Vatican reading guide’ sent to bishops around the world” “Amoris Laetitia is ‘first and foremost a pastoral document’” that will “focus on dialogue”. Meanwhile, Vatican Radio gives its readers a “pick and mix” selection of “Highlights of Pope Francis’ teaching on the family” from the 30 plus talks at his General Audiences during 2015.


Cite this article as: David Pocklington & Frank Cranmer, “Embargoes and the public domain” in Law & Religion UK, 6 April 2016, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2016/04/06/embargoes-and-the-public-domain/.

2 thoughts on “Embargoes and the public domain

  1. I can’t comment on Italian press practices but in the 1960s when I worked in Fleet Street, the term ’embargo’ meant embargo. If one was breached, we adopted a holier-than-thou attitude to the miscreant, speaking more in sorrow than in anger etc etc Attitudes to breaches depended on the seriousness and weight of the material leaked.

  2. Pingback: Amoris Laetitia: first observations | Law & Religion UK

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