Repeal court judgement deletion notice, international press groups urge PM

Seven international press freedom groups are urging Robert Abela to rescind a legal notice allowing for the removal of court judgements

Several press freedom groups have written to the Prime Minister urging him to rescind a legal notice that allows court judgements to be removed on ‘right to be forgotten’ grounds.

The letter was penned by ARTICLE 19, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, European Federation of Journalists, Free Press Unlimited, International Press Institute, OBC Transeuropa, Reporters Without Borders.

In their letter, the groups consider it “disingenuous” to rely on the right to be forgotten as the underlying principle of the notice.

“This principle pertains to delisting from a commercial search engine, such as Google, under specific circumstances. This cannot be compared to the removal of personal data from an online service administered by the government that contains public records.”

They acknowledged that there may be legitimate reasons why certain judgments or parts thereof ought not to be public. One instance is to protect the rights of minors.

However, they expressed concern with the way this legal notice was introduced. The court director is a non-judicial appointee without statutory autonomy, who is appointed by and answers directly to the Minister of Justice.

Through this notice, government bestows onto the director full discretion to decide whether a judgment is partially anonymised or even removed from the public record altogether or never published in the first place

“The principle of publicity of court proceedings, including the verdict, as protected under European human rights law and extensively developed in the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisprudence, is an essential means for realising the right to a fair trial and maintaining public confidence in the judiciary.”

The legal notice was introduced last week by Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, giving unfettered power to the director of the law courts to delete judgments from the public website.

The minister subsequently said that guidelines would be published to ensure the right to forget can be exercised with caution.

The Opposition has filed a parliamentary motion asking for the legal notice to be withdrawn after several media organisations and lobby groups, including the Institute for Maltese Journalists, objected to the rules.