A former Times of Malta journalist has appealed two judgments ordering her to pay €10,000 in libel damages to the husband of Equal Opportunities Minister Helena Dalli over a series of articles regarding a Żejtun property.

Caroline Muscat was targeted by two libel suits filed by Patrick Dalli following five articles carried by the Times of Malta about allegedly illegal works carried out at the Żejtun farmhouse owned by Pada Builders Limited, a company belonging to the Dalli spouses.

Patrick DalliPatrick Dalli

The court, presided over by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, in a judgment delivered on July 5 rejected all the pleas raised by the respondent, declared the articles to be defamatory and ordered Ms Muscat to pay damages to the tune of €10,000.

The court said no illegal works had been carried out on the Żejtun farmhouse and the owner of the property was not Mr Dalli but Jason Desira.

The magistrate also concluded there had been no ‘hidden’ assets involved, since all the properties belonging to Mr Dalli were lawfully registered and could be easily traced through the Public Registry.

There had been no controversy regarding the Żejtun property, and the whole contention had been raised through the series of articles penned by Ms Muscat, the court said.

Moreover, being married to a politically exposed person did not make the applicant susceptible to public scrutiny, the court declared.

“The fact that his wife chose to venture out into the field of politics should not serve as a conviction bearing down upon the applicant… who can do nothing without being closely scrutinised and exposed in public,” the magistrate said, declaring all five articles to be defamatory.

Meanwhile, each of these considerations by the Magistrates’ Court was rebutted by the respondent in two separate applications filed against the judgments in her regard. The appellant pointed out that the first court had rejected her preliminary plea, wherein Mr Dalli had been asked to indicate the allegedly defamatory parts of the articles at issue, without giving due consideration.

Although the first court had concluded that no illegal works had been carried out at the Żejtun property, the evidence put forward had clearly shown the exact contrary, Ms Muscat said.

Indeed, an architect had been tasked by Mr Dalli to apply for the sanctioning of the illegalities, with the applicant himself testifying that “on that day that I phoned Jason Desira, the works stopped, and as far as I know no other works were carried out”.

After the story was first leaked to the Times of Malta by means of a photo and explanatory note from an anonymous source, a former journalist in the newsroom snapped a photo of workmen on the roof of the Żejtun property, two days before the picture was uploaded on the Timesofmalta online portal, which was  captioned ‘Workers captured on site two days ago’, on November 12, 2014.

The fact that his wife chose to venture out into the field of politics should not serve as a conviction bearing down upon the applicant

The testimony of this journalist was not contested in court, and nor was the fact that extensive works had been carried out on the farmhouse’s facade, the appellant argued, adding that the sanctioning of the illegalities had only been upheld by the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal pending the libel proceedings, with the relative permit being issued in August 2016.

The Magistrates’ Court had also concluded that the property belonged to Mr Desira, the “person buying the property” even though at the time of the publication of the articles the latter had merely signed a promise of sale agreement with Pada Builders Limited, represented by Mr Dalli.

A copy of this promise of sale, together with its subsequent extension and the final deed of transfer signed on November 20, 2015, pending the libel proceedings, had been exhibited before the court, Ms Muscat added.

As for the decision of the court judging the term ‘hidden’ to be defamatory,Ms Muscat said the term had been employed to explain to the ordinary reader that the property at the heart of the controversy had not been included in the minister’s declaration of assets.

This term had been used with reference to Dr Dalli and there had been no reference to her spouse in the article, Dr Muscat said, insisting that this amounted to fair comment in terms of law.

As for the conclusion of the court that Mr Dalli was “a private person deserving protection from the public eye”, the appellant pointed out that besides being a minister’s spouse, Mr Dalli was also greatly involved in the construction business as “an entrepreneur of a certain bearing”.

Moreover, his wife had an interest in all his companies, so much so that she had indicated this in her declaration of assets, as dictated by the Code of Ethics for Parliamentarians.

“He cannot have his cake and eat it too,” the appellant argued, meaning that Mr Dalli could not openly engage in business in the public eye and then expect to be treated as a “private person”.

This was a matter of public interest, where works were carried out not in conformity with the relative permit, the appeal application read.

“The appellant had not merely a right but a duty to investigate and publish for the satisfaction of her readers, who likewise had a right to know, that which was in the public interest, even if this gave rise to debate and controversy,” the applicant went on, requesting the court to uphold the appeal, thereby revoking the judgment of the first court.

Lawyers Paul Micallef Grimaud and Stefan Frendo signed the appeal application.

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