Newsrooms unite against contempt of court charges over public interest stories
, Newsrooms unite against contempt of court charges over public interest stories

Maltese newsrooms have joined together in expressing concern at a recent court decision to charge journalists with contempt over the publication of stories that are deemed to be in the public interest.

In a joint statement, The Malta Independent, Times of Malta, Maltatoday, Illum, Lovin Malta, Newsbook and The Shift News said they are “deeply concerned” about the decision taken by Magistrate Rachel Montebello.

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Last year, the magistrate 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, Times of Malta published a number of stories that the magistrate deemed to 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 a careful consideration of the public interest.

These included the publication of a photo showing Fenech enjoying a day on a boat together with former MFSA chief Joe Cuschieri. The latter was forced to resign after the media revealed that he had travelled to Las Vegas with Fenech to advise him on “regulatory matters” related to casinos. The publication of the photo only helped to show the extent of his friendship with Fenech.

Other stories published by Times of Malta revealed Fenech’s connections with suspended Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar, former Malta Gaming Authority boss Heathcliff Farrugia and former Planning Authority CEO Johann Buttigieg. The newsrooms contend that all this information, which shows Fenech’s closeness to politicians and other top officials, is in 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,” the newsrooms said.

“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.”

The newsrooms argued that 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, MaltaToday 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, they said.

“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 newsrooms reaffirmed their “commitment towards pursuing truth and informing readers, despite the many risks and threats that are made to us on a daily basis.”

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