Kurt Farrugia ordered to pay €5,000 to Giovanna Debono in libel damages

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Former OPM Communications Chief Kurt Farrugia was ordered to pay €5,000 in libel damages to former Minister for Gozo Giovanna Debono.

The case was instituted by Debono on 16 April 2008 after Farrugia who at that time was an editor of an online news portal maltastar.com had published an article titled Bitterly bitten Nadur families fight back, claim “abuse of power by Giovanna Debono. The article appeared on the website on 7 April 2008.

The former OPM communications chief was then a journalist and editor at maltastar.com. He had published an article alleging that Debono during the few days she was Acting Prime Minister she had wielded her influence in a case concerning the expropriation of a piece of land.

An Acting Prime Minister cannot decide on the expropriation of land, which involves a lengthy process and falls under the remit of the Minister who is in charge of the Lands Authority.

Farrugia argued that his article was value judgement and constituted fair comment.

In court, Debono had presented a copy of the two notices published in the Government Gazette, one which showed that she was appointed as Acting Prime Minister and the other which showed the expropriation of land in question. She explained that the two notices were linked together, adding that in her role as Acting Prme Minister she had nothing to do with the acquisition of land. She added that this was signed off by the President.

Debono had explained that expropriation fell squarely under the Minister who responsible for Lands and is signed off by the President, and therefore in the few days she spent as acting Prime Minister there was no link to the power she had in such a role and that of an expropriation notice.

Farrugia explained that the couple owned a parcel of land in Nadur which they sought to develop. In the area, Debono’s driver used to live. During Farrugia’s cross-examination it emerged that Farrugia had reported the couple’s claims. He was asked whether he had verified if the Minister for Gozo and the Prime Minister had power to expropriate land, to which he replied ‘no’. Farrugia said that he had leafed through the Government Gazette and found two notices – that of the expropriation of land and that of the Acting Prime Minister. Asked whether it was possible for a notice of Acting Prime Minister to be published and for the expropriation which happened over a period of time to happen on the same as the notice was published, Farrugia had replied in court that that was what the family had said. He told the court that he would not know what the expropriation process would involve.

The court found that the article was libelous. The court took note of the words used in the article as well as of a court case decided on 23 April 2010, when Andrew Vella sued the Lands Commissioner. The decision was confirmed upon appeal before the Constitutional Court.

The Constitutional Court found that despite the claims made by the plaintiffs who complained that there was an element of discrimination based on political views, it found that the project had started in 1984 when Partit Laburista was in government and subsequently continued under a Nationalist-led administration. The first expropriation was made in 1991 when a 1984 scheme came into force. The Constitutional Court had found that the expropriation were motivated by environmental considerations. Further, the decision to expropriate the parcel of land was taken by the Lands Commissioner at the time, Albert Mamo after he had discussed the issue with the Attorney General. The decision was taken on 14 March 2008.

The Constitutional Court had found that the decision to expropriate land was done in the general interest and not to benefit a group of people.

Citing case law, the court said that for the defence to plead value judgement, that when making claims of value judgement one needs to base the claims on facts and truth and not inventions. The Court said that the defendant did not manage to substantiate his pleas of value judgement and fair comment. It noted that according to the evidence presented in court by the defendant himself, it resulted that “the article in question was based exclusively on allegations and assumptions made by the Vella couple without any attempts or efforts by Farrugia to verify the allegations made against Debono”.

Farrugia was found to have reported what the couple had told him without verifying the expropriation process and whether the expropriation process was completed before the notice was published in the government gazette.

The court therefore found that the article titled “Bitterly bitten Nadur families fight back, claim “abuse of power” by Giovanna” which was written by Farrugia and published on maltastart.com of which he was editor, was libelous and tarnished her reputation.

The Court said that while Debono was at that time a public figure, the criticism leveled against at public figures should be “verified” and “well-researched” and “should not be used to damage a public and political figure at all costs”.

In a court presided over by Magistrate Gabriella Vella, the court ordered Farrugia to pay €5,000 in damages.