MaltaToday was yesterday ordered to pay €15,000 in libel damages to a lawyer who was the victim of “bad journalism”.
Lawyer Peter Fenech had objected to an article that appeared on the front page of the newspaper entitled As Government Waives Lm100,000 Bill. Peter Fenech Claims Lm138,000. The article was published on January 22, 2006.
In the same issue, on page 15, MaltaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan had also written about the article in his own column, entitled Immunity Because Of A Bounty.
Dr Fenech, who is also the chairman of the Mediterranean Conference Centre, said the allegations in the story were completely unfounded.
In both cases, it was claimed that Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi had waived a debt of €256,217 that Dr Fenech, as a director of VAB Co. Ltd, owed after failing to pay rent on a government-owned property in Sliema for 25 years.
It was alleged that, as soon as Dr Gonzi took the Finance Ministry under his wing, the debt was waived.
Dr Fenech flatly denied this and testified that he was not the owner of the company but his father was. He was a director and company secretary with no shareholding.
The lawyer also said he was one of 500 signatories to the company and the report portrayed him as not only the owner but also as the person owing the government money, which was never the case.
In documents exhibited in court it resulted that the company was no longer in a position to operate the premises it occupied and offered to return the land to the government together with the premises, which had been built in lieu of outstanding rent. This was accepted by the Finance Ministry.
Magistrate Francesco Depasquale said it was clear that both the article written by journalist James Debono and the piece penned by Mr Balzan were not fair comment but the result of “bad journalism”.
He fined Mr Balzan €5,000 and Mr Debono €10,000.
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