Court vindicates MaltaToday reports on MCAST HR manager

MaltaToday executive editor Matthew Vella had written that MCAST HR manager Josephine Abdilla had been placed on forced leave due to co-workers’ complaints

A court has dismissed a libel case filed against MaltaToday executive editor Matthew Vella, by a former human resources manager at MCAST, who denied having been placed on forced leave due to co-workers’ complaints, ruling that the report was accurate.

Josephine Abdilla sued for libel over a series of reports by Vella dealing with the inquiry and the testimonies of MCAST staff. 

MaltaToday had first reported in August 2021 that Abdilla’s allegations of corruption had been disproved by the ministerial inquiry. That inquiry had been launched in 2018 after Abdilla was placed on forced leave following complaints by her co-workers.

The ministry's inquiry had dismissed all of Abdilla's allegations and noted that whistle-blowers had come forward saying they had been pressured by Abdilla in selecting favoured candidates for MCAST teaching jobs.

Vella wrote that the inquiry report showed Abdilla to be reviled by staff and teachers for her abrasive and suborning behaviour. She denied the accusation in a lengthy right of reply to MaltaToday, in contrast with the clear findings of the inquiry.

In a judgement handed down on Monday by Magistrate Rachel Montebello, it was observed that the facts emerged from the evidence and that it was “indisputable” that the plaintiff had effectively been suspended from her MCAST post, not least by the plaintiff’s own testimony.

The reports which formed the subject of the libel repeatedly emphasised the Government’s lack of transparency about the conclusions of its own Board of Inquiry and failure to explain its reticence to reveal the reasons it retained her in the role, despite the Board finding that she had conducted herself in a manner not befitting her position at an educational institution.

“The court finds that the holistic accusation understood by an ordinary reader is not one of dismissal, but a situation of continued forced leave on full pay: a claim which as the plaintiff herself admitted, is correct and consequently cannot be taken to be defamatory.”

The article’s principal claims were that Abdilla had lied under oath in her testimony before the Board of Inquiry, that she had created an atmosphere of unpleasantness and tension amongst staff and teachers through oppressive behaviour and bullying tactics and that her claims of corruption and blackmail had been discredited by the inquiry. 

The publication of the Board of Inquiry’s conclusions was not unreasonable, said the court but necessary to impart the seriousness of the fact that years after the inquiry’s conclusion, the authorities continued to resist efforts at confirming whether or not the plaintiff was still occupying the role and in receipt of a full salary. The magistrate went on to describe as “worrying” the fact that no action appeared to have been taken against Abdilla by the authorities, in spite of a conclusion by its own board which found that she had acted irregularly and possibly illegally.

The magistrate noted that in its report, the board had observed that witness evidence had conclusively proven that Abdilla had tried to exert pressure on the members of a board interviewing candidates for the post of English teacher, in a way that favoured an unworthy candidate. Abdilla was also reported as having intervened in an irregular manner in the recruitment process, while trying to influence the board to illegally discriminate against candidates and award “false and fabricated marks to the candidates she indicated.”

Vella’s reporting had been truthful, said the magistrate.

Having seen the evidence, the court ruled that it was “manifest that the declarations attacked by the plaintiff are not allegations which had been concocted by the defendant, but rather consisted of facts, that is, conclusions of the Board appointed under the Inquiries Act to establish the facts.

With regards to other declarations of Vella’s opinion which also featured in the article, including the description of Abdilla as a “much reviled executive at MCAST due to her bullying of subordinates and confrontation with other staff and lecturers”, the court ruled that this opinion had been legitimately derived from the evidence tendered by several witnesses who described aggression, bullying, shouting and humiliation at the hands of the plaintiff.

“In this context, it is obvious that the elements of honest opinion are also satisfied, as any honest person could easily arrive at expressing the same opinion as the defendant on the basis of existing facts, consisting in the conclusions of the Board of Inquiry.”
Lawyer Andrew Borg Cardona represented Abdilla in the proceedings.

Lawyers Veronique Dalli and Andrew Saliba assisted Vella.