MaltaToday takes Peter Fenech defamation case to Constitutional Court

Courts stood by claim that Fenech was not ‘public official’ despite enjoying political appointment under former PN government

Peter Fenech
Peter Fenech

MaltaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan and journalist James Debono have filed a constitutional application, arguing that their right to freedom of expression was violated when a court fined them a total of €18,000 for the defamation of former Mediterranean Conference Centre Chairman Peter Fenech – a man which the first court did not deem to be “a public official”. 

The case related to a series of articles by Saviour Balzan and James Debono in which it was claimed that the then-PN government had allegedly waived Lm109,965 (€240,000) in rents due from VAB Company Limited, which at the time leased a government-owned property in Tigné and which it sub-leased to a lessor. VAB was a company in which Fenech and his father purportedly held ownership.

Fenech subsequently filed two libel suits against Saviour Balzan, and one against James Debono, arguing that two articles and an excerpt were defamatory and libellous.

The court, presided by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, fined Balzan €5,000 and €3,000 for his article “Immunity Because of a Bounty,” and an excerpt in the paper’s “Quote of the Week” respectively, while Debono was fined €10,000 for his article entitled “As Government waives Lm100,000 bill, Peter Fenech claims Lm138,000.”

The sentences, which were confirmed on appeal, had declared that Fenech was not a public figure – despite him holding politically-appointed posts.

But in their application, MediaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan and journalist James Debono held that the articles in question were justified because Fenech held a public post.

In a constitutional application filed against the Attorney General, the Courts Registrar, the permanent secretary at the justice ministry, and lawyer Peter Fenech, the plaintiffs are insisting that the articles were published after Peter Fenech was continuously asked to answer questions sent to him by MaltaToday.

They say that Fenech always refused to answer the questions. “Since Peter Fenech was a public figure, there is a wide margin of appreciation for criticism in his regard, more so because he occupied public posts due to his involvement in local politics.”

In their application, the plaintiff’s lawyer Toni Abela also held that the court’s decision is unjust and infringes upon MaltaToday’s  right to freedom of expression.

“The plaintiffs are of the opinion that the court’s decision to fine them for libel impinged their fundamental human right to freedom of expression.

“The same conviction is a threat to a journalist’s freedom of expression, and there is serious danger that the decree could be a deterrent to journalists from allowing them to public any serious facts which they discovered.”