Opposition MP Claudio Grech has been awarded €4,000 in two libel suits against the PL media over a story alleging that on the eve of the 2013 general elections, he had attempted to silence a whistleblower in relation to the oil scandal.
The facts stemmed from a front page article in the June 12, 2016 issue of Kullħadd based on an affidavit wherein Christopher Farrugia, the nephew of George Farrugia, who was at the centre of the oil scandal story, had stated that Mr Grech had asked him to disassociate himself from the story which was “greatly damaging Austin Gatt”.
At that time, Mr Grech worked in the private secretariat of Minister Gatt, while Chris Farrugia, as CEO of John’s Group of Companies, hailed from a well-known Nationalist family.
The affidavit had been seized upon by the PL newspaper Kullħadd which published an article titled “Tried to silence a Whistleblower,” later also reported on One News.
In the course of the libel proceedings, a different reality emerged, based upon evidence put forward by the applicant during his testimony in court as well as in the form of transcribed extracts taken from a secretly recorded conversation between a third party and Chris Farrugia, which document was allowed as evidence in the suit.
The respondent, Aleander Balzan, then-editor of the PL media, had never showed up and never put forward any evidence, in spite of being given one final chance by the court to do so in November, before the cases were put off for judgment.
It resulted that it had been the CEO of John’s Garage who had actually requested a damage-limitation meeting with Mr Grech to ask him for a helping hand in avoiding further negative publicity for the company, given his uncle’s involvement in the alleged corruption linked to the scandal.
Faced with this request, Mr Grech had urged Chris Farrugia to take all data, retrieved from his uncle’s office computer, to the police “so that the truth might emerge and whoever was involved in acts of bribery would be held responsible”.
The court, presided over by magistrate Francesco Depasquale, observed that the investigative journalism, claimed by the respondent, had stopped abruptly once the story was made public.
An affidavit published by Mr Grech the following day was not given importance by the PL media, leading the court to observe that the story had only been intended to cast a negative light upon the applicant rather than to present “truthfully and honestly” facts, allowing the public to draw its own conclusions.
The court stressed the need for journalism to be not merely “investigative but also independent”, which, given current polarisation and manipulation existent both locally and beyond Malta’s shores was “a rarity and an exception”.
Given various considerations, including the serious nature of the allegations levelled against the applicant, which could have brought upon him legal consequences if proved true, the court upheld the libel claims, ordering the newspaper and One TV to pay €2,000 each by way of damages.
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