Journalists should be allowed unrestricted access to prison, court rules in landmark judgment

Court rules blogger Manuel Delia’s rights were breached when he was denied free access at the Corradino Correctional Facility • Court says journalists should be allowed to conduct interviews, take photos and record footage inside prison

Corradino Correctional Facility (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Corradino Correctional Facility (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

The court has ruled journalists should be allowed to conduct interviews, take photos and record footage inside prison.

It declared that the “law cannot be used to create a barrier between journalists and the public,” and upheld a claim by blogger Manuel Delia that his fundamental rights were breached when he was denied free access to prison and detention centres.

The court application was filed by Delia in September 2020 after he sought permission from the prison authorities to visit the Corradino Correctional Facility and the country’s detention centres.

He had been granted access, but his visit was only limited to the prison kitchen while under surveillance.

Testifying, former CCF Director Alex Dalli, who was forced to pen his resignation following a series of inmate suicide attempts, had defended his decision to limit journalists’ visits.

Manuel Delia (Photo: Facebook)
Manuel Delia (Photo: Facebook)

Delivering his judgment on Monday, Mr Justice Toni Abela said the days of “je suis le roi, je suis la loi” [‘I am the king, I am the law’] are over.

Dalli had contended that Delia did not meet the criteria stipulated for individuals granted access to any area within the prison facilities. A high-ranking prison official had also testified that journalists did not enjoy such access because it was reserved to a special list of individuals in terms of the Prisons Act.

The court acknowledged the officials' good intentions but disagreed with their decision, citing outdated laws and previous rulings from both Maltese and foreign courts on similar matters.

“Restrictions on freedom of expression should be dictated by common sense and reason,” the magistrate said.

According to the court, the protocol document presented to Delia had a stifling and alarming impact on journalists aiming to cover the prison. It outlined solely what journalists were restricted from doing, specified the procedures for interviews and the prison tour, and highlighted the authority to halt the visit at any moment.

It stated that capturing photos, conducting interviews, and filming videos were permissible as long as the privacy of inmates or detainees was honoured, unless there were substantial and convincing grounds to prevent such actions.

“Authorities should not shut their doors to journalists,” went on the court, observing that such an attitude only serves to breed or strengthen doubts that some cause for investigation truly exists.

What was going on behind the prison walls was without a doubt a matter of public interest, the court ruled, referring to the ongoing controversy surrounding the Dalli administration at the time.

The court concluded that Delia’s right to freedom of expression was breached.

The court therefore ordered the prison director and the Head of Detention Centres to grant Delia access and to allow him to take photos whilst respecting the privacy of inmates and detainees.

However “for obvious reasons” the applicant was not to have access to those divisions where persons linked to the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination were being detained.

The Home Affairs Minister, the permanent secretary and the State Advocate were declared non-suited.

Lawyers Paul Borg Olivier and Eve Borg Costanzi assisted the applicant.