The inquiry into the death of private Jake Kovco was heading to Holsworthy shooting range yesterday for some practical research. In the meantime, the head of the inquiry “attacked the Nine Network” for showing footage of one of the key witnesses, “soldier 14”, thus breaching an order for anonymity.

One of the frustrating features of the Kovco inquiry has been the way so many of the names have been kept hidden: “soldier 14”, “soldier 17”, “soldier 20”, and so on. This makes it hard to follow the story, but it’s also bad in principle. Justice is supposed to be public, and where serious allegations are being considered, the public is entitled to know the identity of the people concerned, unless there are strong policy reasons to the contrary.

So, for example, there are restrictions on reporting the names of children accused in court, of sexual assault victims, and of parties in family law matters. But none of the reasons for those cases seem to apply to military personnel. They are adults, presumably able to look after themselves. Police give evidence in court under their own names — why shouldn’t soldiers?

Perhaps some of them are in special operations, where there identities need to be protected, rather like undercover police. But that can’t be the case for all of them; even the chief-of-staff to Australian forces in Iraq was given a number (“soldier 39”).

The ritual of anonymity creates a perception that people have something to hide, but it also reinforces the view that the military is a law unto itself, free from the duties and the accountability that the rest of us have. In its way, the inquiry into Kovco’s death is a symptom of the culture that perhaps contributed to that death in the first place.

Peter Fray

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