Magistrate Joe Mifsud appealed to Parliament to decriminalise defamation, noting the contradictory situation in Malta which embraced freedom of expression but also punished certain instances where views were aired publicly.
"The court notes the contradictory situation existent Malta where, in a democratic society which embraces the belief in freedom of expression, a person who expresses his views in public is subjected to the possibility of both civil and criminal procedures being taken against him. Regarding the latter, there are still situations which may still lead to an effective jail term."
Magistrate Mifsud was delivering a judgment on a criminal libel case, filed after a Xewkija local councillor was alleged on Facebook to have had an adulterous relationship with the wife of his friend.
The court dismissed the criminal libel after it noted that the case had been filed too late.
Inspector Frank Tabone had charged Mario Degiorgio with slandering the name of George Zammit, a councillor on the Xewkija Local Council.
Mr Zammit and the Mr Degiorgio had once been great friends, but this friendship had come to an end when Mr Degiorgio found out that the Mr Zammit had had an intimate affair with his wife. Hurt and grief-stricken, Mr Degiorgio informed Mr Zammit's children of what he learnt through Facebook.
The court remarked that the duty to protect one’s reputation rested primarily with the individual, noting that if this reputation was not zealously safeguarded, “it would be futile to accuse another person of being the cause of losing one's reputation and expect comfort from the courts”.
Quoting a hefty volume of jurisprudence on the topic of freedom of expression in relation to libel, Magistrate Mifsud noted that Mr Zammit was active on the local political scene. He observed that in cases of comments on matters of public interest - especially in the case of people in the public eye - the limits of comments were “very wide indeed.”
A distinction had to be drawn between an allegation of fact and fair comment, the court said. For a comment to be justified, it had to be fair and bona fide.
Punishing freedom of expression could bring about a chilling effect on the exercise of this right and would likely discourage further attempts to use it, the court noted.
The court found Mr Degiorgio not guilty of slander.
Moreover, the incident had taken place on August 23, 2012, but the charges were signed by a police inspector on August 3, 2013 and eventually filed on the 23rd of that month.
The prosecution insisted that Mr Degiorgio had been notified of the charges on August 3, but the court observed that the earliest record of the accused being notified was through a November 6 application, requesting a sitting be delayed. Taking this date as the date of notification, the court held the case to be time-barred.
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