A small victory in the never-ending fight for free speech

The Dalli judgments are just one small victory in the never-ending fight for free speech and an enabling environment for journalism to thrive

Magistrate Rachel Montebello did not mince her words when rejecting two libel suits filed by former prison chief Alex Dalli against MaltaToday and Illum.

The magistrate said the newspaper reports that made serious claims about Dalli’s unorthodox disciplinary methods were “substantially correct and not the result of irresponsible journalism”.

Montebello added that the reports were in “good-faith about matters of public interest and therefore not defamatory”. She dismissed outright, Dalli’s claims that the newspaper articles had damaged his reputation. As a public officer Dalli’s actions should be held to a higher level of scrutiny.

The two judgments represent a victory for MaltaToday and its sister newspaper, but more importantly a victory for responsible journalism.

Only last May, Magistrate Rachel Montebello dismissed another libel suit filed against Illum by former prison official Randolph Spiteri over an account describing his degrading treatment of a female inmate. The court in this case also deemed the newspaper report to be “substantially true.”

The judgments leave no doubt as to the importance of journalism that holds power to account. This is all the more important in situations like prison, where inmates can be subjected to degrading treatment that is very difficult to prove because of the nature of the place.

The judgments – not one but three – prove how right we were to pursue the stories about Dalli’s unorthodox methods and how wrong government was to stand by him at all costs.

Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri did not flinch when the stories about Dalli and his militaristic methods started to emerge – from walking around with a gun and a muzzled dog to a restraint chair and its use to humiliate prisoners.

The media and human rights campaigners cast a worrying spotlight on Dalli’s management style, which was blamed for several suicides among inmates.

All the while, Camilleri remained obstinate, defending Dalli’s track record of bringing back discipline to prison and stamping out a rampant drug abuse situation. For government, the end justified the means and it was only when the situation became untenable after the umpteenth suicide that Dalli was removed and instead given a job in Libya as Malta’s special envoy on migration.

Now that a magistrate has thrown out the libel cases Dalli filed against this newspaper and its sister publication, we expect the minister to utter a mea culpa, at the very least.

Prison is by no means an easy environment to work in. Running it requires a mixed bag of abilities that is hard to come by. It is a place of discipline but also a place of rehabilitation. Both characteristics can have competing goals but can also be complimentary.

While Dalli brought with him a military outlook and restored order in a place once notoriously run at the whim of a few inmates, he lacked the empathy to understand the myriad of human emotions that accompany incarceration.

When the warning lights started flashing, government was more interested in the immediate results – seeing order restored – then the more long-term goal of rehabilitation.

In these circumstances the media had a duty to evaluate the information it was receiving, verify it with other sources, and publish so that the goings-on behind the high walls of Corradino prison are exposed.

It is high time that the government, people in power and politicians realise the importance of responsible journalism in a democratic society.

But rather than just paying lip service to freedom of expression, they also have to act on the information published by the media.

The Dalli judgments are just one small victory in the never-ending fight for free speech and an enabling environment for journalism to thrive.