The editor of satirical news site Bis-Serjetà and university lecturer Simon Mercieca are set to face contempt of court proceedings over posts they published online regarding Yorgen Fenech. 

This was the outcome of a decree delivered by Magistrate Rachel Montebello at the end of the last hearing in the murder compilation in December, following complaints made by Fenech's lawyers and the Attorney General’s Office about certain negative media reporting targeting lawyers on either side of the judicial process. 

Insults against public officials intended to disturb them in the exercise of their duties, amounted to attacks against the proper administration of justice and contempt of court, the magistrate decreed.

Reference was made to an application filed by Fenech’s lawyers on December 16, supported by copies of various writings by journalists, freelance writers, as well as Matthew Caruana Galizia and the family lawyers. 

This was no “objective” reporting, Fenech’s lawyers claimed, but rather prejudicial writings that lacked impartiality and cast a shadow on the accused’s reputation, making him out as guilty in the eyes of society at large. 

Those publications contained “untrue and prejudicial” statements about Fenech’s alleged involvement in the murder and other crimes, as well as about his private life, family and lawyers, his mobile and chats with third parties. 

Such prejudicial pre-trial publicity was likely to condition those who would eventually be called to judge, Fenech’s lawyers argued, blaming the victim’s family for its efforts to conduct a “trial by the media”.

The court was to safeguard the fundamental rights of the accused and his presumption of innocence, argued the lawyers as they requested the magistrate to take all necessary and appropriate measures to safeguard the proper administration of justice. 

Two days after that application, Fenech’s lawyers filed a note flagging an article published on the Facebook page of Bis-Serjetà which described the accused’s legal team as “mafia lawyers”.

Such continuous and concentrated attack was endangering their work when exercising their profession in the best possible manner, said the lawyers, reiterating their call for the court to apply necessary measures. 

That call and another one made by the Attorney General, by means of an earlier note, referring to the writings of the university lecturer, were addressed by Magistrate Montebello who instructed the court registrar to institute contempt of court action against the authors indicated in those notes.

Although the press played an essential role in a democratic society, the right to information and freedom of expression could not outweigh the accused’s right to presumption of innocence, she said.
The court observed that it was not opportune to ban publication of reports on the murder which “shook society”, and in respect of which, investigations were still ongoing, even against other persons of interest.
The accused was a well-known figure in Maltese society, a prominent businessman with a wide range of contacts, including politicians and had been involved in a number of projects sparking controversy and active debates considered as matters of general public interest.
Yet, although the public had a right to be informed about the criminal proceedings, consideration was also to be given to the accused’s presumption of innocence and the right to a fair hearing by an impartial court.
For this reason, the court had already banned publication of information from Fenech’s mobile phone, recordings by self-confessed middleman Melvin Theuma and had, on several occasions, ordered testimonies to be given behind closed doors.
At this stage of proceedings the court said it was necessary not to hold public discussions about the case, nor publicly refer to the accused as “guilty”.
Moreover, reports about the court case should only be handled by the media and not by private individuals, so as to avoid prejudice and inaccurate reporting.

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