Education Minister Evarist Bartolo and Kurt Farrugia, the prime minister's spokesman, have been ordered to pay a total of €2,000 in compensation after a court convicted them of having libeled Richard Cachia Caruana, Malta's former permanent representative to the European Union.
Mr Cachia Caruana had filed a complaint after Mr Bartolo commented on One Radio in May 2012 that Mr Cachia Caruana used the Secret Service against those who did not agree with him.
Mr Farrugia was registered editor of One Radio at the time.
Defendants pleaded that the comments were not libellous as Mr Cachia Caruana was a public person and the comments were made by another public person on the bases of value judgement and fair comment.
In its considerations, the court, presided by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, noted various decisions of the European Court, notably in the case Poyraz vs Turkey where the court said that:
"Civil servants acting in an official capacity are, like politicians, subject to the wider limits of acceptable criticism. Admittedly those limits may in some circumstances be wider with regard to civil servants exercising their powers than in relation to private individuals. However, it cannot be said that civil servants knowingly lay themselves open to close scrutiny of their every word and deed to the extent to which politicians do and should therefore be treated on an equal footing with the latter when it comes to the criticism of their actions civil servants must enjoy public confidence in conditions free of undue perturbation if they are to be successful in performing their tasks and it may therefore prove necessary to protect them from offensive and abusive verbal attacks when on duty."
While a civil servant could be subject to a higher level of criticism he could not be considered at the same level as a public person and civil servants had to be protected in order to carry out their duties properly, the court said.
With regard to fair comment, the court observed how Gatley in his study on Libel and Slander said that: "The defendant must show that the words are comment, and not a statement of fact. He must also show that there is a basis of fact for the comment, contained or referred to in the matter complained of Finally, he must show that the comment is on a matter of public interest, one which has expressly or implicitly put before the public for judgment or is otherwise a matter with which the public has a legitimate concern. If, however, the plaintiff can show that the comment was not made honestly or was actuated by malice, he will defeat the plea.
In the case before the court, the three past and serving heads of the secret service had testified that they were never contacted by Mr Cachia Caruana and he had never made use of the service to harm anybody.
Therefore, the claims made in the programme were not true and the defence of fair comment and value judgment had not been proved.
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