The heirs of murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have been ordered to pay the former head of Malta’s 2015 CHOGM task force, Phyllis Muscat, €750 in moral damages over a defamatory blog post.
Judgment was delivered on Monday in libel proceedings which Muscat had filed the day following the May 2017 post which featured on Daphne’s Running Commentary. It alleged that the ‘CHOGM 2015 task force led by PM’s friend Phyllis Muscat asked hotels for kickbacks on delegate bookings.’
Muscat felt libelled by the article since, she said, the payments consisted of an official commission, payable by bank transfer directly into the government’s account at the Central Bank. She insisted that no one had made any personal illicit gain.
Caruana Galizia had filed her reply to that lawsuit, but was killed just three days later.
Her husband and sons stepped into the proceedings instead.
When delivering judgment, Magistrate Victor George Axiak observed that both parties agreed that Muscat had made no personal gain from the commissions paid over hotel bookings relative to the 2015 CHOGM summit.
Indeed, documentary evidence of those payments, confirmed by Central Bank officials testifying in the proceedings, showed that €257,730 had been transferred by Hilton Malta, €44,039 by Corinthia, €29,164 by Marina San Gorg Ltd, €65,726 by Island Hotels Group Ltd and €18,977 by Eden Hospitality Ltd.
While the task force head felt libelled by the kickback allegations, the respondents countered that she had misunderstood the blog post which meant to show that the task force had benefited through those commissions, with participants at the summit having to make good for “the cut” taken by the government.
Yet the court observed that the title of the blog post had to be taken in context, also in light of back to back revelations about alleged kickbacks, involving high profile politicians “including the former prime minister,” which were emerging at the time.
The headline itself emphasized that Phyllis Muscat was “a friend” of the then prime minister, said the court, concluding that she had reason to feel libelled.
The plea of fair comment did not stand since the facts alleged were substantially untrue, the court said.
Moreover, although the journalist had not intended to imply that Phyllis Muscat made personal illegal gains, she did not attempt any clarification when readers interpreted her article as such.
That clarification had only been tendered in affidavits presented by her successors in the proceedings, two years after the case had been instituted, observed Magistrate Axiak.
Muscat's lawyer had argued that the article had a “worldwide effect” since anyone googling Muscat’s name would come across these allegations, the court noted, ordering the respondents to pay €750 in moral damages.
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