MaltaToday in the dock over Melvin Theuma recording leaks

Magistrate orders contempt of court proceedings against editor Matthew Vella and others

MaltaToday is being accused of contempt of court over a story in which it revealed police questioning of Edwin Brincat, known as il-Gojja (left) having coached Theuma on what to say whilst recording his conversations
MaltaToday is being accused of contempt of court over a story in which it revealed police questioning of Edwin Brincat, known as il-Gojja (left) having coached Theuma on what to say whilst recording his conversations

MaltaToday executive editor Matthew Vella and assistant editor Karl Azzopardi, and executive director Saviour Balzan, have been summoned to appear as defendants in a contempt of court case filed over the publication of extracts of phone recordings made by Melvyn Theuma.

The recordings reported by MaltaToday revealed that Melvin Theuma, self-confessed middleman in the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, had been forewarned of an FIAU investigation into his money laundering activities.

They also showed that Theuma had been leaked information that Vincent Muscat, il-Kohhu, one of the triggermen in the murder, had requested a pardon in return for information. One story revealed how Theuma was told that Castille would pin the assassination on fuel smuggling suspect Darren Debono and that Theuma was being briefed on developments in the police investigations. Another showed that Edwin Brincat, known as il-Gojja, had coached Theuma on what to say whilst recording his conversations with Fenech.

In an application filed by the Director of Courts last month it was alleged that MaltaToday’s publication of the recordings contravened a court order from January last year which prohibited the publication of the recordings or their transcripts on pain of contempt of court proceedings.

On 13 August 2020, the court referred to the publication, on various news portals and social media, of parts of recordings which were exhibited in court behind closed doors, away from the media.

Taking this as a breach of various court orders issued in January, February and July 2020, the court ordered that the registrar of the Criminal Courts establish the identity of the persons responsible for the publication of the recordings.

Magistrate Rachel Montebello had lashed out at an anonymous leak of the recordings to reddit.com, describing it as “a bold and barefaced breach of the court’s orders” and “a manifest act of contempt” and ordered that steps be taken against those responsible.

It had also ordered steps be taken against blogger Simon Mercieca, who had also published parts of the recordings on social media.

MaltaToday also published extracts from the recordings on August 9 2020, which were followed up by more revelations by Balzan and Vella later that month.

On 20 October, magistrate Montebello ordered the registrar of courts to file contempt of court proceedings.

The case will be heard by magistrate Victor Axiak next week.

MaltaToday is contesting the charge, with lawyers Veronique Dalli and Andrew Saliba arguing that the Director of Courts had to first conclusively prove that the recordings in question formed part of the evidence covered by the publication ban.

This besides the fact that the court order only bound the parties and lawyers from passing on the recordings to third parties, and not the third parties themselves from broadcasting them, said the defendants.

Additionally, they said, it was clear that the court ban was founded on article 409(2) of the Criminal Code, which dealt with compilations of evidence held behind closed doors. That article expressly states that it applies to court officials who are participating in the compilation of evidence.

“Besides the fact that this compilation of evidence was not being held behind closed doors, in any case, once the defendant is not a court official, he was not bound by the order banning publication and therefore cannot be found guilty of contempt of court,” reads the editors’ statement of reply.

They argue that there exists no disposition of the law prohibiting persons extraneous to the compilation of evidence from publishing documentary evidence exhibited in the acts of the case.

The defendants obtained the voice recordings from a Reddit thread after they were uploaded there by a third party, and not from the acts of the compilation of evidence. As a consequence, they could not know - and did not know to this day - whether the recordings they published were the same ones exhibited in the compilation proceedings and which were covered by the publication ban.

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