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Del Negro libel case - a welcome judgment for the press
A recent ruling by the Court of Appeal may well prove a landmark judgment when it comes to interpreting Maltese libel law.
9 February 2012, 12:00am
Last Friday, Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri, Mr Justice Albert J. Magri and Mr Justice Tonio Mallia overturned an earlier verdict against former PL international secretary Joe Mifsud, who had been found guilty in two libel suits filed against him by former minister Louis Galea.
Both cases go back to the late 1990s, when Mifsud - then still a journalist with One TV - published a book about the notorious 'Cirio Del Negro diaries', and was immediately faced with a barrage of libel suits.
This in itself highlights an endemic problem besetting Maltese journalism. Libel laws exist to protect citizens from unjust slander, and to provide adequate remedy when innocent persons fall victim to false accusations. In practice, however, they more often tend to be shamelessly exploited to place undue pressure on journalists, in order to discourage them from trying to do their job.
Sometimes the mere mention of a name in an article (regardless of the truth or otherwise to the story) would be enough to prompt the aggrieved party to immediately resort to criminal libel. And while one cannot exclude that some libel suits are fully justified, the sheer number of vexatious and unwarranted cases alone can be seen to distort the very purpose that criminal libel laws are supposed to serve.
Moreover, Ciro Del Negro's diary - with all the names of local personalities (some better known than others) it contained - had been presented as evidence in a court case, and was therefore very much in the public domain.
Del Negro, an Italian national with Malta connections, had been implicated in a number of suspected criminal cases, including high calibre drug trafficking deals. However, no charges were ever brought against him by the police for lack of concrete evidence.
In March 1995 he was declared a 'persona non-grata' by the authorities, and ordered to leave the country. Prior to his departure, the police had confiscated a diary of his, in which a number of high profile names had been recorded in what appeared to be a logbook of various suspicious activities.
One of the names mentioned in Del Negro's diary (among countless others) was that of Louis Galea's brother; and it was in connection with this allusion that Galea decided to resort to multiple libel actions.
Although originally filed in 1997, the case would drag on until 2011, when a final verdict was delivered in Galea's favour. However, in overturning this guilty verdict last Friday, the Court of Appeal raised a number of telling and important points: of which the most relevant by far concerns the inherent difference (so often forgotten in this country) between a private and a public figure, as well as a reminder of how the public interest automatically overrides all other concerns where the latter are concerned.
Observing that the issue treated by Mifsud was "undeniably" of public interest, the Appeals Court judges quoted from a seminal European Court of Human Rights verdict (Haes et vs. Belgium, 1995), to the effect that: "...the general interest in a public debate which has a serious purpose outweighs the legitimate aim of protecting the reputation of others, even if such debate involves the use of wounding or offensive language."
The same ruling also reiterated that public figures such as Louis Galea - who was a prominent Opposition member of Parliament at the time, as well as a former (and future) Cabinet minister - should expect to be exposed to greater scrutiny than other citizens, on account of the fact that their public role makes them accountable directly to society.
Similar levels of scrutiny can be expected to extend also to close family members, insofar as these could avail of opportunities provided to them by their family connections (interestingly enough, this same argument had been successfully used to force Brigadier Maurice Calleja to resign as AFM commander in chief, when his son Meinrad was accused of drug trafficking).
To highlight the significance of this aspect to the ruling, one need only compare last Friday's verdict to an earlier appeals court ruling in another libel suit brought against Mifsud over the same publication. This time, the Appeals Court upheld an earlier guilty verdict in a case brought by lawyer Sandra Sladden: who was mentioned in the diary only in connection with her role in a custody case involving Del Negro's child.
Such cases are by definition considered private matters, and the court ruled that there was no corresponding 'public interest' element to justify undue exposure to the public.
By way of contrast, the second Appeals Court ruling should serve as a stark reminder that public figures - especially politicians, who are directly answerable to the general public on several levels - cannot expect to be treated by the media using the same yardstick as their private counterparts.
This observation in itself should radically alter the entire landscape when it comes to deciding libel cases in future. And it is about time, too, that this greatly distorted landscape was finally hammered into shape as a level playing field for one and all.
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