Silly me to think a recusal would not be fair play at all...

In the long list of defamation cases I have received and the few I have instituted, I have never ever tried to interrupt the judicial proceedings because of apparent or imagined conflict of interests

File photo
File photo

The campaign by Repubblika to call for the recusal of Magistrate Nadine Lia has been well documented: it was about the recusal, and the refusal of said magistrate, to step aside from presiding over a case in which her familial links could have created very clear, conflicts of interest.

It was on this potential bias, her very direct familial connections to a lawyer representing Joseph Muscat, that Repubblika won their claim – specifically that lawyer Pawlu Lia is her father-in-law, and that this could cloud her judgement.

Whether or not someone will agree with this kind of recusal, one which the courts saw fit, it is also fair to say that a serene justice system should be one where everyone is confident that they will be judged fairly.

In the long list of defamation cases I have received and the few I have instituted, I have never ever tried to interrupt the judicial proceedings because of apparent or imagined conflict of interests.

Many a time, I could have conjured up numerous conflicts of interests for the judiciary that was judging me and this newspaper – friendships, political allegiances, conflicts of interest, company interests, former legal partnerships... the crimes of affinity abound! I instead played fair by outrightly respectin the integrity of the institutions.

And certainly enough I never tried to pre-empt any defamation case by, say, pen a timely poison-pen missive by hitting out at some magistrate or judge, or their personal lives.

But I have to say that, this week, I did regret not have played the recusal card with Magistrate Rachel Montebello given our previous reports in this newspaper on business interests in Gozo that touch very close to home.

I have only ever filed two defamation cases in my life. In one against Daphne Caruana Galizia, we settled the matter out of court after she apologise for her ‘mistake’; the other was against the disgraced, former Times journalist Ivan Camilleri over his shoplifting misadventure.

In a nutshell, in this defamation case I filed against Camilleri, Magistrate Montebello found that his claims that I had invented the story (now proven in court by witnesses), that I had made false allegations, or had some agenda to cause Camilleri reputational damage – which I contested as an outright lie – were not defamatory. Based on her, naturally personal, interpretation, the illogical outcome was that Camilleri was free to “reply to attack” even when what he was saying was patently untrue.

Convenient, no? Camilleri’s falsities against me, the author of a report that turned out to be true, are not “sufficiently” defamatory.

Now one has to consider that in this same court, supermarket director Ray Mintoff told the magistrate that Camilleri had paid back the supermarket some €5,000 over previous incidents of shoplifting to prevent the matter from being treated criminally by the supermarket. Mintoff had confronted Camilleri over an incident, insisting that he was unconvinced that this was a one-off ‘error’ and that he was considering reporting the case to the Police.

Times of Malta editor Herman Grech also confirmed under oath in court that in December 2019 – weeks after the MaltaToday story had first been published – he confronted Mintoff about the allegation. It turned out that Mintoff had claimed that the value of goods stolen could have been well into the €12,000 figure and that the shoplifting had been ongoing for years. Allied Newspapers director Michel Rizzo was present at this meeting, and confirmed the statement.

Ivan Camilleri, who testified via a sworn affidavit, claimed to the court that he had “forgotten to place certain items of value at the bottom of the trolley under some packets of water” on the cashier’s conveyor belt. He said it was “an unfortunate incident”, and that it was days later that Mintoff called him with the threat to report the incident to the police, so – “feeling blackmailed and that it was not in his interest that this case is revealed” – decided to pay him €5,000.

After first having stood up for Ivan Camilleri at the time of the story, on the 19 December 2019 Grech and Rizzo, having established the facts, accused Camilleri of not having told them the truth, and he was sacked from his job, with The Times retracting its previous statement defending the journalist.

Now – I had been called all sorts of names by Ivan Camilleri in the past... all par for the course with a character like him. But this was different. Camilleri, a man derided and utterly disliked for his toxicity by his former newspaper colleagues, was accusing me of fabricating a story about him. That was not on.

Yet Magistrate Montebello in her decision said that the defamation case I filed against this defamatory statement on Facebook had been ‘wrong’: intended at “advancing evidence that proves that this was not an isolated case or a mishap as claimed by the defendant, but one of a series of shoplifting crimes over the course of time.”

The court said it was not its role to decide whether the shoplifting incident had indeed happened, but whether Camilleri’s statement on Facebook denying the story as “an invention and a lie and full of inaccuracies” was defamatory. “In this case the Court has only to determine whether the defendant’s statement caused, or had the propensity, to cause serious reputational harm to Balzan,” Montebello said.

Camilleri, in his Facebook statement, accused me of tarnishing the reputation of “serious people who spent their lives fighting what is wrong”. Of course I felt that this was defamatory: it is an age-old, simplistic way of shooting down journalists by accusing them of character assassination when they are in fact publishing facts.

Montebello even took advantage of a comment I made where I conceded that I was “not in it for Camilleri’s pound of flesh... I’m not interested in bringing him down further” – so she decided in her wisdom that I as the plaintiff was not interested in moral damages. Convenient yet again... did that mean I did not want my own defamation case to succeed??

“His interest is in determining that the story he penned is indeed the truth... then he does not believe his reputation suffered damage from the defendant’s statement,” she said, and defended Camilleri’s Facebook statement as ‘a reply to an attack’ to which he was entitled against the attack on his reputation – “no matter how harsh, hasty, untrue or libellous the publication would be but for the circumstances, the law declares it privileged because the amount of public inconvenience from the restriction of freedom of speech or writing would far out-balance that arising from the infliction of a private injury.”

She declared Camilleri’s statement, “though an attack on the Balzan’s bona fide intentions”, had been reasonably expected for his defence!

Now Ivan Camilleri has a few defamation cases he filed against me presided by the same magistrate and other journalists at MediaToday. It will be interesting to see how the magistrate interprets all the facts and arguments being presented – in a fair way.

It is now that I return to the issue of recusal and why I should have asked for a recusal of Montebello.

Because since the 1990s, her father’s and now hers, business interests, were at the centre of a scandal long covered by Alternattiva, and of course myself, over an illegal construction in Mgarr ix-Xini in Gozo and the participation of former magistrate Carol Peralta (whom I revealed to be a freemason) on a case in which magistrate Dennis Montebello had a direct interest.

Years later, magistrate Dennis Montebello fined me a hefty couple of thousands of euros after verified stories on the over billing history for foreign medical patients by a former Labour MP.

And now, it continues with our stories on the landowners of an immense parcel of land in Qala and Nadur, Gozo – the so-called Abbazia di Sant’ Antonio delli Navarra, a foundation created in 1675 by the Rabat noblewoman Cosmana Navarra. Since 1992, the Stagno Navarras, alleged heirs to this foundation, have been attempting to wrest control of the lands away from the Church, which according to the foundation’s rules had to administer the Qala land when no male heir was identifiable to take control. The Curia contested this right up to 2013 when it won its case against Richard Stagno Navarra.

But then Archbishop Charles Scicluna, in a very bizarre and unexpected way, recognised a new rector proposed by the Stagno Navarras. It was lawyer Peter Valentino, the partner of Magistrate Rachel Montebello; now the Montebellos were business partners with the Stagno Navarras and Gozo lawyer Carmelo Galea in Carravan Ltd, the vehicle used for the Abbazia to transfer its lands to a commercial company. Just for the record, Rachel Montebello is a shareholder through Carrac, along with father Dennis and Carol Montebello.

For a paltry sum of €200,000, in 2017 the Maltese Church brokered a deal in which the Abbazia would no longer be bound by certain conditions in the foundation deed. And since 2017, the Abbazia, transferred lands inside the Qala development zone to Carravan, where the PA is now green-lighting development applications for  business associates of Gozitan property entrepreneur Joe Portelli.

These are facts, not attacks or insinuations. One can at least surmise that as a Carrac shareholder, the fortunes of Carravan are also Rachel Montebello’s... which is why MaltaToday’s assiduous coverage on the controversial Gozo land deals, are bound to be seen, also as, ‘attacks’ on the serenity of this great big business understanding between lawyers, landowners and Gozo’s biggest developer.

So how silly a boy was I not to demand the recusal of Magistrate Rachel Montebello? I’ll just plod on then, hoping that the business interests of her company will not cloud her judgement. Somehow, I still embrace the naive sentiment that truth somehow prevails.