Two articles published by a local news portal concerning the Panama Papers scandal were “not at all” libellous, an appeals court has ruled in a decision that overturned an initial judgement.
The court found that while two comments posted beneath the articles were defamatory, the articles themselves were not.
Both articles were published by The Malta Independent on Sunday and its online portal in May 2016. They repeated allegations, made by Daphne Caruana Galizia on her blog, that Keith Schembri, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, had used fraudulent documents to open companies in tax havens.
The articles were titled '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'.
In the article, the news outlet wrote that HSBC Malta was expected to launch an investigation into the possible use of fraudulent documents by Mr Schembri and his business associate Mr Scerri.
Ms Caruana Galizia had reported that reference letters from HSBC’s Attard branch which the two men had presented were dated May 27, 2013 – more than one year after the bank’s Attard branch had closed.
After The Malta Independent articles were published, it emerged that the reference letters had been wrongly dated due to an administrative error by the bank. The news outlet issued a statement a few days later that it was satisfied that “no wrongdoing can be attributed to Mr Keith Schembri and Mr Malcolm Scerri, or their financial consultants Nexia BT”.
Nexia BT directors Brian Tonna and Karl Cini had filed a libel suit against the news outlet, with a magistrate's court finding in their favour.
However, on Friday a Court of Appeal overturned that ruling and declared that the newspaper’s question about the authenticity of those bank documents had certainly been legitimate.
Bearing in mind that the issued revolved around the Prime Minister’s “closest aide”, “hand picked” by the PM himself, it was obvious that the media’s focus would be on Mr Schembri and his financial advisors Brian Tonna and Karl Cini.
Mr Justice Anthony Ellul noted that the media had a crucial role as a public watchdog and said that the newspaper had every right to bring Ms Caruana Galizia’s report to its readers.
The articles, deemed as “not so defamatory” by the first court were actually “not at all defamatory,” said Mr Justice Ellul.
On the other hand, two particular comments posted by readers on The Malta Independent’s website went beyond mere expressions of opinion and were defamatory.
There was no evidence that the news outlet had taken steps to remove those comments, even after it acknowledged the administrative error by the bank.
Whilst being very cautious when publishing their articles, the online editor had allowed a ‘free for all’, providing no evidence of having filtered readers’ comments.
For this reason, the court revoked the earlier judgment, declaring that the articles were not defamatory but that the two readers’ comments were. It ordered online editor Stephen Calleja to pay €500 in libel damages.