Saviour Balzan cleared of libel in case filed by former Labour deputy leader

Former Labour deputy leader Joe Brincat loses libel case he filed over MaltaToday opinion piece that rekindled memories of his arrest in Italy in 1987

Former Labour leader Joe Brincat
Former Labour leader Joe Brincat

MaltaToday executive director Saviour Balzan did not defame former Labour deputy leader Joe Brincat in an article mentioning his arrest in Italy 33 years ago, a court has ruled.

Balzan had recounted before Magistrate Rachel Montebello how, in 1987, Brincat was arrested in southern Italy after being caught in possession of contraband jewellery.

The defamation case was filed by Brincat over an opinion penned by Balzan in MaltaToday.

Balzan said the libel proceedings were vexatious and based on wrong assumptions. He said the reference to Brincat’s case in Italy was a side remark in a long opinion piece that focussed on former Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia’s public statement on political appointees.

When taking the witness stand, Balzan recounted the events from 1987, when Brincat was arrested in Italy.

Balzan said that the original articles in the press in 1987 had clearly indicated the efforts made by the late Guido de Marco, then deputy prime minister, to intervene with the Italian authorities to release Brincat from prison.

He said that the Times of Malta had reported de Marco’s comments back then where he made it clear that he would be talking to his Italian counterparts to intervene in Brincat’s case.

Balzan gave a detailed account of how the Italian police had scouted Brincat as he returned to a junk yard to inspect a damaged car belonging to Maltese national Colin Shires.

Colin Shires had crashed his car and was in intensive therapy in an Italian hospital.

As Brincat and Shires’s wife retrieved the hidden, undeclared jewellery and cash from the wrecked car that was being kept in judicial custody, the Italian police pounced and arrested both of them.

Balzan said that all this could be verified from the reports of ANSA in 1987, which were also quoted and cited in court.

Brincat was eventually released from incarceration only because of the Maltese government’s intervention, specifically that of Guido de Marco, Balzan testified.

Two years later the same Italian court found Brincat guilty and condemned him to four months’ imprisonment and a fine of 400,000 Italian Lira.

Brincat had not appeared in court in spite of de Marco’s declaration two years earlier that he would vouch for Brincat’s return to Italy to face justice.

Balzan testified that at the time, all the Maltese press had tried very hard not to report the case and there were those such as Fr Joe Borg – today chairperson of the Maltese church’s Beacon Media Group –  who had defended him.

When the newspaper Balzan was involved in at the time, Alternattiva, published the sentence by Neopolitan Magistrate Lorenzo di Napoli, Brincat had filed three defamation cases, which he subsequently lost.

Balzan insisted in his testimony that no one could change the facts or alter history and Brincat’s defamation case was simply vexatious and a waste of time. 

Court disagrees with Brincat's assertion

Magistrate Rachel Montebello, in her judgment on the case, said the court disagreed with Brincat’s assertion that the article claimed he had committed a crime and was spared prison because of political intervention.

She noted that it had emerged from the evidence that Brincat had been arrested in Italy and that, many years later, his arrest was ruled to be in breach of his rights. Brincat had also been acquitted of the charges by the Italian courts in 1994 – seven years after his arrest.

“But all this does not change or take anything away from the fact that the plaintiff was effectively arrested in Italy on suspicion of committing a criminal offence and had spent several weeks detained in prison there,” Montebello said.

The court pointed out that nowhere in the impugned article did the defendant say that Brincat had actually committed the offence with which he had been charged or that he should be found guilty or that without De Marco’s intervention he would have been jailed for several years.

An objective reading of the article, said the magistrate, led her to understand that Brincat had been arrested in Italy on charges of involvement in a criminal offence with the prospect of spending several years in prison. This prospect had not materialised because of political intervention made by the then Minister for Justice with the Italian authorities. This did not imply that he had actually committed the crime, but that he could have spent a long time in custody had it not been for De Marco’s intervention.

The court said that a distinction should be made between that understood by a reasonable ordinary reader and the conclusions such a reader could reach on the basis of his                opinions and personal prejudices.

The impugned article limited itself to simply reporting the fact that the plaintiff had been arrested and charged without making any references or narratives relating to the plaintiff’s conduct in this regard. In addition, it did not emerge that access to the 1989 article was made available or was quoted from, in the article in question.

“Nowhere has the the Court encountered any declaration in the impugned article that can be understood that the plaintiff was guilty… or that without the intervention, he should have or would have been found guilty of a criminal offence.”

Balzan had testified that at the time it had been very clear that there had been political intervention such that Brincat’s father in law, John Buttigieg had not only publicly thanked De Marco but had said that had it not been for De Marco’s intervention and that of the government, Brincat would not have been released after 26 days, but months later.

“The fact… that the plaintiff was granted bail by the Court of Cosenza on 28 December 1987 and that seven years later, the court of Appeal of Catanzaro declared that he had not committed a criminal offence is not enough, in the opinion of the court, to remove the prominence that had been given in local press to the intensive political interventions which took place to obtain the plaintiff’s release, the guarantees offered by the Maltese Government to ensure the plaintiff’s presence before the Italian judicial authorities… and above all the public thanks by members of the government and the Opposition for the assistance given in this regard..”

Taken altogether this convinced the court that the expression of the opinion that Brincat faced the possibility of long detention in prison was justified, said the court.

Whilst negligence, irrationality and lack of fact checking in publication of defamatory allegations is condemnable, this did not necessarily constitute malicious intent but could in certain instances be so, said the court.

In every case, the court said the journalist had an “essential duty” to seek the truth and make serious verifications, which were diligent and complete before publishing statements, even those of opinion.

In Balzan’s case, it was not satisfactorily proven that he had been aware of the result of the appeal and therefore his declaration satisfied the requisites for the success of the defence of honest opinion, ruled the court.

The court found for Balzan, declaring him innocent and ordering Brincat to pay costs, adding however, that there was nothing to stop him from updating his opinion piece once Brincat had sent him a copy of the European court’s decision containing a concise report on the final outcome of the proceedings against the plaintiff which had exonerated him.