A court has turned down an appeal by former Media Today editor Saviour Balzan over a post by former journalist Ivan Camilleri whose comments were deemed to have been in good faith as a proportionate reaction to the appellant’s "attack".

The case revolved around a story published by Malta Today in October 2019 about an alleged shoplifting incident at a Naxxar supermarket involving Camilleri.

The targeted journalist reacted to that story in a Facebook post wherein he denied the allegations which, he claimed, were intended solely to tarnish his reputation. 

Camilleri claimed that Balzan had written several stories about him and his family “in a negative tone” and said he felt greatly aggrieved by the shoplifting story. 

Camilleri’s post was deemed to be defamatory by Balzan who filed libel proceedings against the journalist.

However, the Magistrates’ Court had concluded that Camilleri’s comments were a reaction to Balzan’s own story.

Rather than request a right of reply, Camilleri, a former Times of Malta journalist, had rebutted Balzan’s allegations on his own Facebook page and the comments were deemed to be a “reply to an attack.”

That line of defence, though not envisaged specifically under the Media and Defamation Act, was nonetheless upheld as a valid plea by the first court, prompting an appeal by Balzan. 

The court of appeal, presided over by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, declared that the appellant “was not right” in arguing that the plea of “reply to an attack” could not be raised since it did not feature in the exhaustive list of pleas under the Media and Defamation Act. 

The relative provision of law referred to “any claim which, if upheld, leads to failure of the [libel] action.”

The wording of the law was wide enough to contemplate the plea of “reply to an attack”, which formed part of jurisprudence under the UK Defamation Act upon which the parallel Maltese legislation had been tailored. 

That defence was also upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in claims on freedom of expression. 

Such a defence did not depend on the truth or otherwise of the facts at issue but was successful if it amounted to a reasonable and proportionate reaction to the allegations made by the person starting the attack. 

The party at the receiving end had a right to protect himself and his family and that defence included the right to attack the credibility of whoever started the attack, observed the judge. The truth or otherwise was not necessary.

What was relevant was whether the reply was done limitedly, though not exclusively in reaction to the attack in such manner that the defendant gives his own version and also protects his reputation. 

That defence is valid as long as the reply was done in good faith and was proportionate to the attack, concluded the court, throwing out Balzan’s appeal with costs. 

Lawyer Peter Fenech assisted Camilleri. 


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