The writer of an article alleging that the Permanent Commission against Corruption had violated the principles of natural justice has been cleared of libel by a Superior Court of Appeal 18 years after his writing went to print.
Architect Ian Zammit had penned the article entitled “Development at Mongur Street, Għarb” in retaliation to a decision whereby numerous employees of the Planning Authority, including the director of planning, two chairmen and four building inspectors, were declared guilty of corrupt practices by the Permanent Commission Against Corruption, without due process.
Architect Andre Zammit, father of the author of the allegedly defamatory article, who at the time was chairman of the PAPB, was among those labelled as corrupt by the commission.
Following publication of said article in The Malta Independent on Sunday in July 1999, Architect Ian Zammit was sued for libel by Tonio Azzopardi who at the time was substitute chairman of the commission, alongside Joseph Schembri and Carmelo Testa as members.
In 2013, the First Hall, Civil Court had upheld the applicant’s claim, declaring that the respondent had failed to prove the facts alleged by him in respect of Dr Azzopardi, that his writing had contained inappropriate language and that he had adopted a negative attitude towards the applicant, awarding Dr Azzopardi €2,000 in damages.
However, this decision was revoked upon appeal before a superior court which declared that the Commission had indeed acted against the principles of natural justice when it decided that architect Andre Zammit had “committed acts of corruption” without informing the latter that he was subject to investigation and without giving him the opportunity to defend himself against such accusation.
Upholding the appeal, the court, presided over by Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri and Mr Justices Tonio Mallia and Joseph Azzopardi, concluded that the evaluation of evidence by the first court had been incorrect.
There had been no proof that the appellant’s father as PAPB chairman had actively participated in the discussion and approval of the plan for the contested development, submitted under the signature of his son.
Moreover, any reference to “cows and bulls” in the allegedly defamatory article had not been intended as an insinuation against the commission members. The issue had been sparked off by a complaint by an animal breeder who claimed that adjacent development was negatively affecting his animals’ health.
The court concluded that although the article penned by Ian Zammit had been highly critical of the commission’s operations, it had “a sufficient basis in fact” to amount to a value judgment.
Noting further that the proceedings and conclusions of the commission had attracted widespread criticism at the time, with various articles appearing in the local papers, the court upheld the appeal and revoked the judgment which had held the appellant responsible for libel.
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