Maltese newsrooms unite against contempt of court charges over public interest stories

“Criminalising such stories is the very opposite of what Malta needs right now in these extraordinary times where institutions are finally taking action after five painful years.”

Maltese newsrooms are deeply concerned by a magistrate’s decision to charge journalists with contempt of court over the publication of stories that are certainly of major public interest.

Magistrate Rachel Montebello last year ordered news organisations not to publish any stories originating from data extracted from the phone of Yorgen Fenech, who is facing charges for the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. This order was intended so that the murder proceedings would not be unduly influenced.

Since then, The Times of Malta has published a number of stories that the magistrate deemed make “clear reference” to messages exchanged by Fenech.

However, these stories did not have anything to do with the Caruana Galizia murder. They were all matters related to wrongdoing by public officials which merited timely action to be taken, confirming that the public had a right to know about them. The articles were responsibly tackled following intensive legal advice and careful consideration of the public interest.

Interpreting these stories as prejudicial to Fenech’s case means that any stories in which Fenech may be involved cannot be published, even if they are of timely public interest. This is especially contentious since Fenech was a prominent businessman involved in various public-interest deals and with close links to the entire political class.

Journalists also do not have access to the cache of evidence in question so it is impossible for us to verify whether a tip off has emerged from this document or from other sources.

This blanket ban is therefore highly problematic and severely impinges on the freedom of information of taxpaying citizens, who have a right to know if public officials are abusing their positions. It also undermines the freedom of expression of journalists.

Meanwhile, Malta Today is already facing contempt of court proceedings over similar articles, and investigations are underway with regard to other publishers, meaning this is an issue affecting the press as a whole.

Criminalising such stories is the very opposite of what Malta needs right now in these extraordinary times where institutions are finally taking action after five painful years of inertia.

It is pertinent to note that recent criminal proceedings on financial crimes were instituted on the basis of reports that were obtained by the press and political figures, sometimes at great legal risk to sources, whistleblowers and journalists, including the original Panama Papers leak itself.

It is also worrying that a magistrate presiding over the case of a journalist’s murder, is choosing to err on the side of silencing the Fourth Estate while giving undue protection and comfort to public officials who abused their positions.

The undersigned newsrooms would like to reaffirm our commitment towards pursuing truth and informing readers, despite the many risks and threats that are made to us on a daily basis.

This statement has been signed by Lovin Malta, The Malta Independent, Malta Today, Illum, Newsbook, The Shift and The Times of Malta.

                           
                               
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