A former Times of Malta journalist has successfully appealed two judgments ordering her to pay €10,000 by way of libel damages to the husband of Equal Opportunities Minister Helena Dalli.
The judgments were over a series of articles regarding a controversial Żejtun property.
Caroline Muscat had been targeted by two libel suits filed by Patrick Dalli following five articles carried by Times of Malta in 2014 about illegal works carried out at a Żejtun farmhouse owned by Pada Builders Limited, a company with 99% shareholding in favour of the Dalli spouses.
In two parallel judgments handed down on Friday, the court of appeal declared that a series of facts reported by the journalist had been proved “substantially true,” even confirmed by testimony and photographic evidence in support of her writing.
Citing the Bordeaux Declaration of 1954 by the International Federation of Journalists, the court pointed out that “Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist”.
A number of facts disclosed by Ms Muscat’s writings had indeed been proven, the court observed, listing the fact that illegal works had been carried out at the farmhouse situated in an ODZ area and that works were ongoing at the time when the story was published.
Moreover, it was true that an application to sanction the works had been filed, that the property had been hit by an enforcement notice and that the case officer at the Planning Authority had recommended a refusal.
Furthermore, the court observed that the journalist had contacted Mr Dalli before going to print.
“This was not a case where the journalist just published facts without first communicating with the person concerned, giving the latter the opportunity to explain,” said Mr Justice Anthony Ellul presiding over the appeals.
The fact that Mr Dalli had denied any knowledge of the said ongoing works had been left to the readers to judge, given that it was public knowledge that the applicant lived close by to the property at issue, the court went on.
Although the first court had concluded that no illegal works had been carried out at the Żejtun property, the evidence put forward had clearly indicated otherwise.
After the story had first been leaked to Times of Malta newsroom by means of a photo and explanatory note from an anonymous source, a former journalist at the newsroom had snapped a photo of workmen on the roof of the Żejtun property two days before the picture was uploaded on the Times of Malta portal, captioned 'Workers captured on site Two Days Ago,' namely on November 12, 2014.
The testimony of that journalist together with that of Jason Desira, who had entered into a promise of sale on the farmhouse at the time of the publication of the story, proved that works were ongoing.
Photos of the site had even shown machinery, including a bobcat and a truck, which served as further proof of said works, the court said.
As for Mr Dalli’s complaint of having been unduly defamed by Ms Muscat’s writing, the court questioned the applicant’s concern when years before he had carried out “considerable development at the site, not in conformity to the development permit,” consisting of some 120 square metres of floorspace in excess of that approved.
“It was evident that when originally doing all that development without a permit, the applicant did not bother to safeguard his reputation nor that of his wife, a member of Parliament and hence a public person,” the court observed.
Now he had no right to complain of damage to his name, the court went on.
As for the reference to “hidden assets,” the court said that this had clearly referred to the minister and not her husband, explaining that in terms of the MPs Code of Ethics, the minister was not bound to declare the immovable property of the company in which she held shares.
“A journalist has a duty to investigate and report on matters of public interest,” declared Mr Justice Ellul, adding that although Minister Dalli was not an entrepreneur she had a “substantial patrimonial interest in PADA Builders Ltd and hence there was nothing irregular in her being subjected to scrutiny and criticism”.
Though not a public figure, Mr Dalli was married to a high-ranking government official who was the target of the report, the court said. “Were it otherwise, the report would have had little news value.”
Unfortunately, the first court had “taken on board,” the applicant’s “pure speculation,” the court remarked.
While upholding the appeals and declaring that the articles were not defamatory, the court ended its judgment with a word of praise for the minister concerned remarking upon her “political maturity” by not “rushing to knock at the court’s door but accepted all criticism leveled against her,” thus serving as a “classical example of how the law of libel was not to be used by a public figure as a political weapon to suppress freedom of expression”.
Lawyers Paul Micallef Grimaud and Stefan Frendo were counsel to Ms Muscat.