Mediterranean Conference Centre chairman Peter Fenech. Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday.
Mediatoday will be appealing a ruling on three libel suits filed by Mediterranean Conference Centre chairman Peter Fenech against MaltaToday, for which the court presided by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale awarded a total of €18,000 in damages.
The sentence by Depasquale declares that Fenech, a politically appointed chairman of the government-owned Mediterranean Conference Centre, is not a public figure - which was an argument advanced by MaltaToday for its journalist interest in Fenech's commercial actions.
The ruling emphatically states that although Fenech is a public official in his capacity as lawyer, "there is nothing to show that he can be regarded as public official."
MaltaToday ran a series of stories into the lease of government land in Tigné, Sliema for the construction of the Jumbo Lido, revealing that government had waived Lm100,000 (€240,000) in rents due from VAB Company Ltd - a company in which Fenech and his father held ownership - because the company "had no other assets from where to pay the arrears".
According to the spokesperson of the then home affairs minister Tonio Borg (today deputy Prime Minister) who was responsible for lands, the government had confirmed that when it waived the due rents for the leased land, it was unaware VAB was concurrently claiming €138,000 in rents from the third party that was renting Jumbo Lido, with whom VAB had a management agreement.
The sentence does not dispute any of these facts but points out that the assertion that Peter Fenech owed arrears to the government while claiming money from a third person, were incorrect.
The magistrate reached this conclusion on the basis of the fact that Fenech was a director and the owner of one share in VAB Company Ltd and not the owner of the company, which belongs to Peter Fenech's father Frank, who owned the rest of the shares.
"Certainly the journalist had no right to reach the conclusion that because the plaintiff (Fenech) was a director of the company, the company is his."
Peter Fenech had refused to talk to MaltaToday and to answer questions sent by email before the story was published by MaltaToday.
But in the sentence the judge insists that the journalist "intentionally" gave incorrect information with the sole motive of defaming the plaintiff.
MaltaToday's managing editor Saviour Balzan said that on review of the facts of the story, the decision could not have reflected the gravity of the events that were documented by MaltaToday.
"The three fines, €5,000, €10,000, and €3,000 are not only disproportionate but the ruling failed to take into consideration the facts of the case as presented to the courts over the last six years.
"There is a serious attempt to ignore or minimise the role of Peter Fenech, an advocate and a well-known PN political activist, in the negotiations that led to the rent owed to government by a company where he was a registered director, company secretary and a minority shareholder, to be rescinded.
"It is also evident that evidence that showed the participation of Peter Fenech in the whole episode were not taken into consideration. He was director, company secretary and a minority shareholder of the company in question.
"This is an attempt to silence the free press and more so the sentence manifestly ignores the facts as proven. This is a bad decision and ironically comes at a time when politicians from both sides of the House are calling for stiffer penalties on libel cases."
Balzan said the investigations into the government's decision to waive rents on the lease of land for the Jumbo Lido in Sliema were significantly started by the late MaltaToday journalist Julian Manduca.
VAB was also legally represented by Peter Fenech in the case it won for claims of Lm138,385.48 or €320,160 from Marisa Turk Dogan, who had been sub-leased the Jumbo Lido from VAB.
"The press had a right to probe government decisions which were not only unjustified but that were applied with no rationale or justification.
"We will be appealing, not only because we believe that what we wrote was correct but because if these libel fines continue we will be facing the end of the free press in Malta."