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Appeal court clears editor of ex-commissioner libel

How Times of Malta reported Lawrence Pullicino being freed in August 2000.

How Times of Malta reported Lawrence Pullicino being freed in August 2000.

Investigative journalism should always be protected, even if there are mistakes in reporting, the Constitutional Court ruled yesterday, in a judgment that overturned a libel suit filed by a former disgraced police commissioner.

The comment was made in an appeal filed by the former editor of the Maltese newspaper il-Mument, Victor Camilleri, who had been ordered to pay Lawrence Pullicino €1,700.

The Magistrates’ Court had found Mr Camilleri libelled Dr Pullicino in a civil suit over an article published on April 27, 1997.

The article gave details of the privileges accorded to Dr Pullicino while he served a 15-year jail term.

Dr Pullicino had been imprisoned in March 1993, for complicity in the death of Nardu Debono in 1980, and for giving false evidence. He served seven years and five months, just under half the term he was sentenced, because of amnesties and remission for good behaviour.

He was released in August 2000. While in prison, Dr Pullicino was the only inmate to be allowed to make telephone calls from the dog section in the prison.

He was also allowed to approach a prison gate that led to the outside of the compound, as were five other prisoners, something only employees were permitted to do.

It also resulted that despite not working at the bakery or the kitchen, Dr Pullicino was allowed out of his cell at the same time as inmates who did.

Inmates who worked were allowed more prison visits but, despite not working, Dr Pullicino still benefited from increased prison visits.

In the judgment yesterday, Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri, Mr Justice Tonio Mallia and Mr Justice Joseph Azzopardi said that what was written in the newspaper was substantially correct.

“From where, and how, the newspaper got the information was not relevant to the case because investigative journalism should always be protected even if there are mistakes in the reporting,” the judges added.

They pointed out that during the libel proceedings, the former director of prisons had testified about the privileges given to Dr Pullicino, such as being allowed to use telephones in various offices. Yet this was not taken into consideration by the first court because it seemed to mimic what was said in the article, even though other witnesses had corroborated what the director had said, the judges noted before revoking the decision.

Dr Pullicino’s trial by jury lasted three months, after which he was convicted for complicity in Mr Debono’s grievous bodily harm followed by his death, and for giving false evidence.

The case goes back to July 27, 1980, when a bomb was planted on the doorstep of a block of flats where the police commissioner lived in Luqa.

Mr Debono was arrested in connection with the case and was found dead on July 30 after he was said to have escaped from police custody. Mr Debono’s death became politically contentious and Dr Pullicino went on sick leave when the Nationalist Party won the 1987 election.

Dr Pullicino was charged in November 1987 with murdering Mr Debono and giving false testimony in criminal proceedings against the victim’s brother Vincent, who was sentenced to more than five years’ in jail in connection with bombing incidents.

Dr Pullicino was appointed police commissioner on March 28, 1980. He graduated as a lawyer in 1973 when he was a police inspector.

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