Lawyer hits back at criticism over Liam Debono opinion piece

Lawyer Joe Ellis, who’s opinion piece was cited by Liam Debono’s lawyer in court on Monday, has asked for the issue to be referred to the constitutional court

(File Photo)
(File Photo)

Lawyer Joseph Ellis has replied to criticism aimed at his article in sister paper Illum in which he had hit out at the decision to prevent discussion program Xarabank from airing an interview with Liam Debono, who is accused of intentionally running over and maiming a policeman.

During yesterday’s sitting, Lawyer Franco Debono exhibited an article written by lawyer Ellis which was published in the newspaper Illum the day before. The article made Liam Debono out to be guilty without a chance of acquittal, Debono said. 

The court, after reading the article, ordered that a communication be sent to the AG, and Ellis to reply to the complaint raised by the defence within 24 hours. The court reserved the right to decree after the replies are received. It made it clear that because in the article, the author was contesting a decision taken by the court, it will refer the case to the Commission for the Administration of Justice “to investigate and decide if necessary.”

In a six-page reply, Ellis says that he “truly did not understand” the nature of the complaint made by Debono’s lawyer, Franco Debono, as this was not specified in the court’s pronouncement. He said that if it was about it describing Liam Debono as guilty “this could not be further from the truth.” This was made clear in the article, immediately after the section complained about by Debono.

“The undersigned wanted in no way to attack the presumption of innocence of the accused, rather he wanted to affirm it in the most emphatic manner possible.” Ellis described Debono’s selective quoting was “unexplainable.”

READ MORE: Magistrate puts gagging order on Xarabank’s interview with Liam Debono

To this end he reserved the right to present a complaint against Debono before the competent organ, “more so after the same Dr Debono declared with the undersigned on the telephone twice on 28 October that it was not he who had made the submission in question but that it was dictated by the court, something which the undersigned is convinced is not the case.”

On the court’s announcement that it would, if necessary, refer the case to the Commission for the Administration of Justice, Ellis pointed out that it was implicit in our system that a court decision can be contested and appealed. Quoting legal texts, he said the criticism of the court was “legitimate, wanted and expected” in a democratic society.

The order under section 517 of the Criminal Code prevents the publication in writing, but not audiovisual means, of the crime or the accused, pointed out the lawyer. This meant that any restriction imposed by the court in this manner was limited to “writing, printed or otherwise.”

Quoting the European Court of Human Rights in The Sunday Times vs United Kingdom the lawyer said that the court was not faced with a choice between two conflicting principles (freedom of expression and freedom from prejudice in court proceedings) but a “principle of freedom of expression that is subject to a number of exceptions which must be narrowly interpreted.”

Citing more authoritative scholars, the lawyer said that not only does the press have the task of imparting such information and ideas, with regards to the print medias as well as the audio visual media, the public also has the right to receive them. “Were it otherwise, the press would be unable to play its vital role of public watchdog.”

Ellis said that although the court’s intentions were undoubtedly good, there were serious doubts as to whether the order, preventing the broadcasting of the interview was compatible with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and did not infringe the fundamental rights of all Maltese citizens. “From this it follows that even the undersigned is affected by this order and has a direct interest in contesting it.”

The lawyer asked the court to refer the issue to the First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction for a decision on the matter.

READ MORE: Editors concerned by magistrate's Xarabank ruling in Liam Debono case

More in Court & Police