Labour Party Sunday paper KullĦadd overstepped the limits of fair criticism when it attributed “non-existent” criminal conduct to PN MP Toni Bezzina over a planning application on ODZ land.
This was the outcome of a judgment delivered in libel proceedings which the politician filed against editor of the Sunday newspaper, Aleander Balzan, over a February 2017 front-page story titled, 'Bezzina jivvinta fl-applikazzjoni'.
The article reported that Bezzina had filed an application with the Planning Authority, in his wife’s name, for the “rehabilitation and restoration of an existing almond grove and World War II living quarters and observation room,” with plans to build a pool.
The proposed development, at a site along Valletta Road, Mdina, was followed by a no objection letter from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.
Bezzina withdrew the planning application and also rescinded a promise of sale agreement for the land after news of the pending application emerged in Labour Party media.
He also filed a libel case against KullĦadd following publication of the story, which argued that his application came with a “whiff of fraud” (xamma frawdolenti) since he had conjured up the existence of a previously non-existent room to secure a permit for his luxury villa.
The article claimed that Bezzina had “fraudulently” submitted old aerial photos of the land to this effect.
Those images, dating back to 1957, appeared to show a dilapidated guard room dating back to the British era, also documented in the restoration method statement presented by the applicant.
However, an assistant director testifying in the libel suit said that after being tasked by then PA CEO Johann Buttigieg to conduct an aerial photo interpretation, he found “no evidence that any form of building existed” when those photos were taken.
Without delving into the interpretation of such images, captured with equipment available at the time, the court focused upon the crux of the issue, namely whether Bezzina’s application was tainted by fraud.
There was only one meaning an ordinary reader could reasonably lend to such story, the court said: namely that the writer attributed criminal wrongdoing to the MP who sought to deceive the Planning Authority by taking something he was not legally entitled to.
Yet, evidence showed that Bezzina had sought to present his application “in the best possible manner,” without any hint of fraud, even if possibly it was debatable whether his interpretation was correct.
The newspaper’s claim about ‘fraud’ was factually and legally unfounded, said the court, presided over by magistrate Victor George Axiak, striking down Balzan’s plea that the facts were true.
As for his plea that as editor he had a duty to inform the public on matters of public and political interest, the court observed that Balzan’s conclusions were not based on “serious, diligent and complete’ research.
The story was “substantially incorrect,” and the writer “shot from the hip,” overstepping just criticism, thereby casting a shadow upon Bezzina’s reputation, said the court, thus declaring that the publication was defamatory.
In light of this, the court awarded the applicant €1000 in damages.
Lawyer Joseph Zammit Maempel assisted the applicant.