Court dismisses libel suit filed by Italian businessman against Arnold Cassola

A court ruled that an opinion piece written by Arnold Cassola published on MaltaToday was not defamatory

Independent politician Arnold Cassola
Independent politician Arnold Cassola

A court has ruled that an article written by independent politician Arnold Cassola about an Italian businessman who was allegedly laundering mafia money in Malta was not defamatory, adding that it was in the public interest for the Maltese police to take such allegations seriously so as to protect the country’s international reputation.

The libel suit was filed by Bruno Tucci, an industrial chemist, in response to an opinion piece penned by Cassola titled "Will Robert be his own man or continue in Joseph's footsteps?", which was published by MaltaToday website in July 2021. 

Tucci had been investigated by the Italian authorities over suspected involvement in money laundering activities in Malta. The court recognized the article's focus on the public interest of thorough investigations to restore the country's reputation, ultimately dismissing Tucci's claims.

The article was written in the context of Malta's greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which had highlighted concerns about Malta’s handling of tax evasion, money laundering, and the presence of anonymous beneficiaries behind Maltese-registered companies.

Cassola had pointed out that these problems had mushroomed during former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s tenure and questioned whether his successor, Robert Abela, would take decisive action to address the scandals which were harming Malta's international reputation. 

He had also raised specific concerns about the lack of investigations by Maltese police into locally registered companies suspected by Italian authorities of engaging in criminal activities connected to the mafia. Tucci's involvement was mentioned as a shareholder in two Maltese companies—one engaged in import-export trade and the other specialising in the importation of ecological equipment.

While the distinction between suspicion and guilt was apparent to an ordinary reader, said the court, the implication of Tucci's suspected involvement in organised crime could cast a negative light on his character and integrity.  Crucially, however, Tucci had failed to demonstrate that he had suffered actual financial or tangible harm or any significant impact on his reputation. 

Cassola had insisted on the truthfulness of his claims, exhibiting documents which indicated that Tucci's phone had been wiretapped by the Italian Carabinieri in 2005. The intercepted calls revealed connections between Tucci, Nicola Della Corte (an intermediary for Nicola Schiavone, the son of the notorious "Schiavone" clan boss), and allegations of money laundering. Additional evidence included the discovery of Tucci's business card inside a wallet belonging to the Mafia boss's son, which had triggered investigations into suspected laundering of Camorra funds through real estate investments in Malta. Moreover, Tucci's companies, which have since been struck off, had failed to submit audited accounts for several years. Cassola also submitted articles from reputable international media sources that mentioned Tucci and the Italian authorities' phone tapping.

In a decision handed down earlier this week, Magistrate Rachel Montebello upheld Cassola's claims regarding the veracity of his statements. The court determined that Cassola's assertion that the Maltese police should investigate Tucci constituted the expression of an honest opinion based on information published in various foreign newspapers. These articles, the result of investigative journalism, collectively constituted privileged publications on a matter of unquestionable public interest, said the court, adding that the articles in question remain available online.

The court concluded that a reasonable person could be expected to arrive at the same conclusion as the opinion expressed by Cassola—that Tucci should be investigated by Maltese authorities. 

The court further emphasised that Cassola's opinion had been expressed without malice and that there was no evidence to suggest that Cassola did not genuinely believe what he wrote. Tucci's libel claim was dismissed.

The judgement also underscored the importance of addressing serious issues such as tax evasion, money laundering and the alleged infiltration of organised crime in Malta, as matters of public interest. By taking action to investigate and combat these concerns, Malta has the opportunity to rebuild its reputation, which had been tarnished by scandals left unaddressed by the previous administration.

Lawyer Philip Manduca represented Cassola, while lawyer Edward Gatt appeared for Tucci.