A gagging order yet again

As MaltaToday faces another contempt of court lawsuit, the Office of the Attorney General is trying to gag newspapers from publishing stories that are of major public interest

MaltaToday is once again being hauled in court on an alleged contempt of court by the Attorney General’s office, this time for running a re-run of details from previous stories concerning the circumstances that led to the arrest of State witness Melvin Theuma. 

There simply is no rhyme and reason as to why this newspaper is being ‘hunted’ down by the AG over reports of conversations held between Theuma and other associates, when countless other leaks and communications on police investigations have made it to the front page. 

Not only, but by filing a contempt of court action – yet another – against MaltaToday, this newspaper faces mounting legal fees to file its court replies, as well as risking thousands in fines and even possible imprisonment for its editor and reporter. 

This renewed action stems from a court decree of Magistrate Rachel Montebello, who is hearing the compilation of evidence against the alleged Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination mastermind Yorgen Fenech, on a request by Fenech’s lawyers, who want the proceedings instituted against the authors of certain online articles. 

The publications in question have included news items from MaltaToday, The Times, Newsbook, Lovin Malta, Manueldelia.com, The Shift as well as Facebook posts by Matthew Caruana Galizia. Also included has been a satirical post by the Bis-Serjetà Facebook page – alluding to Yorgen Fenech’s defence team as ‘mafia lawyers’ – which was submitted to the courts during the proceedings; but not, it appears, as part of the initial complaint. 

By her declaration that these were “unjust attacks intended to obstruct the defence lawyers and deputy Attorney General in the carrying out of their duties and cast an ugly shadow over their capacities or characters”, the magistrate only stopped short of ordering an outright ban on such articles. After all, she herself noted that these articles were “of public interest, given Fenech’s vast contacts with politicians and businessmen and his involvement in projects of national importance.” 

What MaltaToday cannot understand is why it is being held by the AG’s office as an example of contempt of court, and made to answer from where it has sourced its information: specifically whether reports on Theuma’s phone conversations (which have recently been presented to the court) were relayed to us by confidential informants, or whether we had some other form of privileged access of sorts. 

The action beggars belief: if our sources are sacred, now the onus has been placed on us to prove that our sources have indeed leaked the information by whispering into our ear, rather than us having laid our hands on privileged information not yet presented to the court. 

From this perspective, this action, and the eager manner in which the AG is pursuing the action on what is essentially a re-run of a previous story, appears to be less concerned with safeguarding the judicial process, than with gagging public opinion about a matter of grave national importance. As such, it comes across as a very vague and confusing remedy to the complaints of the lawyers themselves. 

In their actions, the Office of the AG is trying to gag newspapers from publishing stories that are certainly of major public interest, and which, to the discerning reader, are important to allow them to form a democratic opinion. 

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.  

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 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. 

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. 

This time, the courts are erring on the side of silencing the fourth estate. These actions have to stop.