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Editor's Blog: Why did magistrate ban the press from priest case?

Was it correct for the presiding magistrate to ban the press after a Gozitan priest was taken to court today (Tuesday) charged with offences related to molestation?

That depends on the circumstances. If for some reason the complainant felt there was no way he or she could testify and there are objective reasons to support this – i.e., embarrassment is not enough – then there are grounds for the magistrate to entertain such a request. But even there, such a decision should only be taken in the most exceptional circumstances.

Yet in this case it appears no such request was made by the complainant. The request came from the defendant’s lawyer. This raises the bar considerably.

Innocent till proven guilty is a given, especially when delicate accusations are made against a priest. But there is a very simple option open to the magistrate to deal with such a scenario: banning publication of the name. This also serves the purpose of protecting the identity of the complainant.

However, a blanket ban on all coverage tends to defeat the object of open justice. Making court proceedings accessible to the public is not just a desirable notion; it is a fundamental principle contained within the European Convention of Human Rights and, as such, should not be dispensed with unless there is a very special reason for doing so. If such a reason is present, it should be communicated clearly so that everybody can understand it.

The magistrate did no such thing in this case. First he threw out certain members of the media for not wearing jacket and tie (a ridiculous requirement, particularly in the sweltering heat of August), and then he threw out the press altogether.

Not only does this approach do an injustice to open justice, but it is unlikely to be in the defendant’s interest. The gossip mill will turn, the social media will churn, and all sorts of details will be passed around outside the very forum in which they should be presented. This is unlikely to do anyone any good.

 

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