Journalist wins appeal in defamation suits

Journalist and The Shift News co-founder Caroline Muscat has successfully appealed two court decisions which ordered her to pay €10,000 by way of libel damages to the husband of Equal Opportunities Minister Helena Dalli, Patrick Dalli.

The judgement concern a series of articles on Żejtun property.

Patrick Dalli had filed two libel cases against Muscat over five articles which were published in The Times of Malta between 13 and 29 November 2014.

In her articles, Muscat alleged illegal works carried out at a Żejtun farmhouse owned by PADA Builders Limited. Patrick and Helena Dalli own 99% shares in the company.

The Court of Appeal agreed with Muscat’s application that the case and decision in the first court should have been limited to the parts highlighted by Dalli himself which he had deemed defamatory. The Court of Appeal said that a series of facts reported by Muscat had been proven “substantially true”, and were further confirmed by testimony and photographic evidence.

The Court of Appeals said the it was proven true that illegal works had been carried out at the farmhouse situated in an out-of-development zone and that works were ongoing when the story was published.

The court noted that it was also true that an application to sanction the works had been filed which was recommended for refusal by the Case Officer, as well as an enforcement notice was issued on the property.

Mr Justice Anthony Ellul noted that Muscat had not written that the illegal works were carried out by Dalli and by writing “Minister’s husband ‘has no knowledge of illegal work'”, Dalli could not have suffered damages to his reputation. The court stated that in the years prior to the publishing of the article, Dalli himself had carried out works which did not conform to the permit issued. The court thus questioned the applicant’s concern about being unduly defamed saying ‘it was evident that when Dalli carried out the works he did not worry about his or his wife’s reputation’.

On the second article, the court noted that the heavy machinery belonging to PADA Builders Limited were on site and obviously Muscat did not know whether the machinery was functioning or otherwise, but were physically present on site.

The Court of Appeal said that while the first Hall of Civil Court which was presided over by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale had declared that Muscat had the intention to defame Dalli, the Court of Appeal found the declaration as “pure speculation”.

Mr Justice Ellul further said that while Dalli was not a public figure, he was married to a high-ranking government official who was the target of the report. The Court of Appeals noted that had he not been married to Dalli there would not have been news value in the story.

While upholding the appeals and declaring the articles not defamatory, the Judge noted that Equality Minister Helena Dalli did not rush to court to institute a libel case against the journalist but had accepted the criticism leveled at her. The Court concluded by saying that it was a classical example where libel law was not used as a political weapon to suppress freedom of expression.

The Court of Appeals was presided over by Judge Anthony Ellul.