Court protects investigative journalism

Court of Appeal turns judgement in defamation suit, ruling that investigative journalism should be protected irrelevant of who the source is

The Court of Appeal turned a former judgement about a libel filed by jailed police commissioner Lawrence Pullicino against the editor of Il-Mument, with the judges saying that investigative journalism “should be protected irrelevant of the source.”

On 5 May 1997, former police Commissioner Lawrence Pullicino filed a libel case against editor of Nationalist Party Sunday newspaper il-Mument Victor Camilleri and Paul Spiteri as printer of the same newspaper.

The libel related to an article claiming there were factions within the Labour Party which proposed a state pardon for Pullicino.

It also claimed that while serving time at the Corradino Prison the former commissioner benefited from preferential treatment.

The article alleged that unlike all othr inmates, Pullicino was not being kept inside his cell between 12:30pm and 2pm; was frequently at the Outside Gate where inmates were not allowed; inmates had a single weekly contact visit at their disposal, but Pullicino had two or three; he was allowed unscheduled visits, his escort to hospital was from the Special Response Team detail rather than from the Police Mobile Squad and had access to a fully equipped office from where allegedly he gave consultancy service to the government about the building of new prisons.

Pullicino argued that these allegations created bad blood with other inmates who believed he was treated differently.

While Spiteri argued that as a printer he is not ruled by the Press Act and had no merit in the case, Camilleri said that his was a fair comment based on his own opinion about an issue which was of public interest.

The Civil Court heard various witnesses explain that while most of the allegations were true, it was not only Pullicino who was treated differently.

The court also noted that the evidence given by former Assistant Commissioner Emmanuel Cassar and security officer Bernard Zahra was very close to the facts written in the article.

In May 2010, the Civil Court ruled against Camilleri and ordered him to pay Pullicino €1,747 in damages. Camilleri appealed judgement.

In his appeal Camilleri claimed that not every allegation found to be untrue, constituted defamation.

“Slandering is only manifested when the reputation of a person is tainted. Pullicino was a jailed former Commissioner and not any other inmate. If anything the allegations put in bad light the Prison Administration, which were seen to be acting with favoritism, and not the inmate himself”, the editor said.

The Court of Appeal ruled that evidence showed that the allegations were based on true facts. “It is irrelevant who the source of the story was, investigative journalism should be protected” the court said.

Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri, and judges Tonio Mallia and Joseph Azzopardi, ,revoked the judgement of the Civil Court and cleared Camilleri of defamation.

Dr Joseph Zammit Maempel appeared for Camilleri.

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