Updated | Magistrate puts gagging order on Xarabank’s interview with Liam Debono

Magistrate gags Xarabank with Criminal Code to prevent airing with 17-year-old accused of attempted murder of police officer • Defence lawyers say they weren't informed of the judicial protest

Magistrate Joe Mifsud said he did not want a trial by media of an accused who could yet face a jury
Magistrate Joe Mifsud said he did not want a trial by media of an accused who could yet face a jury

Updated at 2.05pm

A magistrate has ordered Xarabank’s producers not to air a recorded interview with Liam Debono, the 17-year-old boy racer accused of the attempted murder of PC Simon Schembri, who lost his arm in a harrowing hit-and-run incident. 

Magistrate Joe Mifsud upheld a judicial protest by the lawyers of Schembri, who demanded equal airtime and for the unedited footage of the interview to be presented in the criminal case as evidence. 

“The courts are legally authorised to prohibit a broadcast or publication in four circumstances: when the accused is 16 years or younger, when the case can cause offence or give scandal, when the criminal court prohibits any publication until the case ends, [and] on respect to be shown to the court,” Mifsud – a former broadcaster and journalist – said in his court decree issued Friday morning. 

No court order banning the reporting of the court proceedings, currently at compilation of evidence stage, has been issued. 

“The court does not agree that a television programme should be aired before evidence is heard in court... it is not right that a trial by media takes place on an attempted homicide case that could end up in a trial by jury.” 

The case has already garnered ample coverage in the press, with PC Simon Schembri becoming a household name after losing his limb in the tragic incident, and a police demonstration held in Valletta with President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca joining the show of solidarity. 

In what could be a worrying precedent for Malta’s press, Mifsud said in his decree that Article 517 of the Criminal Code allows a Criminal Court to ban any publication on the accused, without the ned to justify its decision. 

In his protest, Simon Schembri’s lawyers Andy Ellul and Arthur Azzopardi argued that Xarabank’s recorded interview with Debono was a publicity exercise for the accused that “lacked good taste” and had enormous public consequences due to the show’s popularity, saying it could sway jurors’ opinions. 

The Attorney General actively requested the court to use its powers in Article 517 of the Criminal Code. “Once it is unfortunate that the journalistic ethics of yesteryear has all but finished, maybe it is time for the legislator to do what the British did 37 years ago, and formally censor what today is in the realm of journalistic ethics and auto-censorship,” the AG office said, referring to the UK’s 1981 Contempt of Court Act that bans publication of material that can influence pending criminal accusations. 

Schembri did not explicitly request the ban on the interview, but that he is given equal airtime and that the unedited footage is presented in court as evidence.

Liam Debono, was shceduled to be featured in a controversial broadcast of Friday night chat-show Xarabank on national station TVM this evening. Xarabank has already aired an interview with the mother and grandmother of Debono, whose case attracted national notoriety after Schembri lost his arm in the incident. One News has also aired an interview with his mother.

Debono is claiming a breach of fair trial after the President of the Republic marched with the police, with his lawyer Franco Debono arguing that because of the moral authority which the office she occupies has, she can easily create “irredeemable prejudice” towards Debono since it could shape public opinion.

READ MORE • Mother gave Liam Debono cannabis at 9 ‘to keep him quiet’, court told

Liam Debono is expected to state his case in tonight's Xarabank edition, to defend his difficult upbringing and drug problems. His lawyer has already stated that his case “could be an indication of a particular failure of the educational and social system, in the context that [Liam Debono’s] family nucleus did not sustain him adequately.”

Witnesses have already testified about additional drugs charges made against the underage driver. Two crushers and other drugs, paraphernalia, along with three bags of cannabis grass were found in the accused’s possession after Debono had been driving a Maruti jeep with an expired licence and insurance and a different car’s licence plates.  The case continues on October 29.

Defence lawyers' reaction

Liam Debono’s defence lawyers Franco Debono and Amadeus Cachia have said they were not informed of the judicial application filed by Simon Schembri, and only got to know about the court’s decision, to order Xarabank’s recorded interview to not be aired, through reports in the media.

In comments to Times of Malta, the lawyers said they were still considering whether to appeal the decision of take the case to the Constitutional Court.

“What is clear, however, is that according to the court’s decision, neither [Liam] Debono not Schembri can speak out in public,” they told the newspaper.

“It could mean that [Liam] Debono’s human rights for a fair trial were breached when others spoke out in Schembri’s defence on local media,” Franco Debono said.

“It is unbelievable that Schembri is very comfortable with having himself or others speak in his favour, but the only time that [Liam] Debono was going to speak, he (Schembri) objected. I’ll leave it up to everyone to reach their own conclusions,” he added.

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