Two articles published by the Malta Independent on Sunday and its online edition, alleging that the Prime Minister's chief of staff had made use of fraudulent documents to open companies in tax havens, have landed the paper with €8,000 in libel damages.
Two libel suits were filed: one was by Keith Schembri and Malcolm Scerri, general manager of Kasco Ltd, and the other by Nexia BT auditors Brian Tonna and Karl Cini.
Both cases stemmed from two articles entitled 'Panama Papers: HSBC investigation expected into alleged fraudulent documents vouching for Keith Schembri and Malcolm Scerri' and 'Probe expected into alleged fraudulent documents vouching for Keith Schembri, Malcolm Scerri'.
The libel suits were filed against The Malta Independent on Sunday’s former editor Pierre Portelli, current editors David Lindsay and Stephen Calleja, arguing that the articles were defamatory.
The articles had followed up on a blog published by the same newspaper’s then-columnist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, claiming that HSBC Bank Malta was expected to launch an investigation into the possible fraudulent presentation of documents concerning Mr Schembri and Mr Scerri.
Two reference letters issued from HSBC's Attard branch, months after it had ceased operations, had been cast in doubt by the newspaper.
It, however, transpired that the bank had no intention of probing the matter since the legitimacy of the quoted documents had been confirmed.
The court, presided over by magistrate Francesco Depasquale, held that the defendants had opted to publish almost in its entirety a blog post by Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had originally made the allegations.
"The defendants could have easily restricted their article to the first paragraph of the story, which in actual fact was the only 'investigation' which the writer made before reproducing the story which had already been published some days before – but this was not done.
"Instead, the author chose to emphasise… that there was going to be an investigation by HSBC on that which he described as ‘alleged fraudulent documents vouching for Keith Schembri and Malcolm Scerri.’”
The court said the intention of the author was not to inform the public of an issue of public interest but to reaffirm allegations that Mr Schembri and Mr Scerri had used false documents to open overseas companies, via Nexia BT auditors Mr Tonna and Mr Cini.
The court observed that although Mr Portelli had been informed that the whole issue had apparently been attributed to an "administrative error", this fact had been totally omitted in the articles "and was mentioned only three days later, when the damage was already done".
The online portal had also allowed "not easily identifiable" third parties to post comments on the article, some of which "were defamatory in respect of the applicants without being in any manner controlled or censored prior to publication".
The time was ripe for any party making offensive comments on social media to be “put to task”
Rather than seeking to shrug off responsibility, the newspaper editors ought to have tried to identify these commentators and called for them to be called into the suit, the court observed, adding that the time was ripe for any party making offensive comments on social media to be "put to task".
Expressing “serious concerns” about the malicious misuse of comment boards, Magistrate Depasquale pointed out that these were being used to undermine freedom of expression.
"While everyone has the liberty to express his thoughts, nobody has the right to judge a person and allege facts which turn out to be false, without eventually facing punishment."
In the light of all this, the court concluded that the articles published by the Malta Independent were indeed defamatory, awarding Mr Schembri and Mr Scerri €5,000 jointly in damages and Mr Tonna and Mr Cini a further €3,000 in damages jointly.
Nexia to donate money
Brian Tonna and Karl Cini said in a statement following the judgment they would be donating the €3,000 they had been awarded to Dar Bjorn on behalf of Nexia BT.
They welcomed the outcome of the proceedings and the court's conclusions that anyone who made any type of slanderous comments on the media should be traceable and taken to task for what they chose to write and publish and for the damage caused to those involved.
In another statement, the Labour Party said PN leader Adrian Delia should immediately say what steps he would be taking against the person who had built a campaign on false claims with the aim of hurting the country.
It noted that Mr Portelli was the PN leader’s right-hand man. He had been found to have been central to deceitful campaigns against individuals who formed part of former PN leader Simon Busuttil’s plot against the country.
When he was trying to help the PN win the election through lies, giving the impression that he was an independent journalist, Mr Portelli worked with the late Ms Caruana Galizia on stories which had now resulted to have been intended to hurt certain individuals, it claimed.
"Mr Portelli decided not to testify and it clearly resulted that what he had alleged was false and he had been informed of this," the party said.
The PL noted that minister Konrad Mizzi had won a similar libel suit a few months ago involving The Malta Independent dating back to the time it was managed by Mr Portelli.