Manuel Delia files constitutional case over libel decision in favour of MaltaToday columnist

Blogger Manuel Delia is arguing that an Appeal's Court ruling that found him guilty of defaming a MaltaToday columnist has had a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression

Manuel Delia has filed constitutional proceedings over the Appeals Court decision to uphold a libel claim by MaltaToday columnist Raphael Vassallo, claiming the judgment had a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression.

Last month, Vassallo was awarded €1,000 in damages by the Appeals Court over an article published on Delia’s website that said he was “part of the mafia conspiracy that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia.”

The judgment reversed a previous decision in Delia’s favour, which had been handed down by the Court of Magistrates in 2021.

In an application filed yesterday by Delia’s lawyers Therese Comodini Cachia, Eve Borg Costanzi, Andrew Borg Cardona and Matthew Cutajar, Delia states that the ruling created a “chilling effect” in breach of the right to freedom of expression.

In the court application, Delia’s lawyers explain that the case being filed today was not intended as some form of an appeal from the Court of Appeal’s decision, but because that decision affected the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression. “[The decision] constitutes interference in the employment of the right to freedom of expression and this inference [is] not justified, not needed in a democratic society, not reasonable and does not protect any ‘pressing social need’.”

The lawyers argue that Delia’s article had been published in the public interest and continues to contribute to public debate. It was not for the courts to decide what content should be written or in what style, submitted Delia’s counsel, adding that the European Court of Human Rights demands that Member States give the highest protection to political discussion. 

“Therefore, it is also being submitted that the Court of Appeal did not respect the balance required between the applicant’s freedom of expression and the reputation of the defendant, Vassallo,” reads Delia’s application, adding that the court was “obliged to respect the proportionality criterion when considering the expression of declarations and opinions which contribute to debate in the public interest.”

The lawyers also submitted that the appeal judgment had concluded that Delia had made an insinuation while at the same time recognising that he had expressed his opinion, claiming that it also placed an “impossible and unreasonable” burden on Delia by expecting him not to express any opinion that was potentially offensive to Vassallo by evaluating or criticising Vassallo’s opinion.

Delia argues that none of the statements he made about Vassallo had been made in bad faith and that Vassallo “perhaps had not even realised that his opinion leads to the meaning attributed to it by the applicant.” 

In a blog post published yesterday, announcing the filing of the case, Delia gave his reasons for filing the constitutional proceedings. “In this case, the court intervened in an entirely public discussion in a matter of public interest by two public persons. The court is not meant to function as an umpire between contrasting opinions. In this case, the court chastised one writer for their opinion on the writings of another writer,” Delia wrote.