A former editor of a Maltese daily who filed a constitutional case claiming that his rights were violated in a 1973 libel case, will have his case  decided definitively by a constitutional court of appeal in May.

Joseph Calleja, former editor of In-Niggieza, had been condemned to a jail term of three months and fined Lm50 following an article published in 1973 entitled 'Pudina mis-Sultana a' la Cassar' wherein it was alleged that former Employment Minister Joseph Cassar had fathered a child with a ministry employee.

Forty years later Mr Calleja filed a constitutional case claiming that his rights had been breached by the criminal proceedings. He insisted that the defamatory article had been based on information gathered from several trusted sources.

The first court had said it recognised the press' watchdog role and agreed that journalists must be free to work without interference. Quoting the European Court of Human Rights' doctrine on the effect of criminal sanctions on the exercise of journalistic enterprise, the court said it felt that the penalty inflicted on the journalist was disproportionate and not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

Although the first court had criticized Mr Calleja for his irresponsible and unethical behaviour when writing the article, which had been intended to tarnish the reputation of the minister, criminal libel proceedings should no longer be applicable, it said. It awarded Mr Calleja €5,000 by way of moral damages.

However, both parties filed an appeal, Mr Calleja claiming that the awarded sum was too low and the Attorney General claiming that the defendant had acted in bad faith.

Before the court of appeal, lawyer Christian Falzon for the AG argued today that the judgment awarding compensation gave the wrong message as it rewarded "him for writing imprudently and reporting unproven allegations" besides being excessive.

Moreover, the first court had quoted the European Convention on Human Rights which at the time of the commission of the offence was not yet part of Maltese law.

Lawyer John Bonello appearing for Mr Calleja, argued that the case was not about the conviction for criminal libel but on whether that could justify a prison sentence which was deemed to be excessive.

Mr Calleja was the only journalist to have been jailed since Malta's independence, the lawyer argued.

The case was put off for judgment in May.