Libel hell sees Caruana Galizia make stand for ‘press unity’

The author of poison-pen blogs that targeted so many members of the press, now asks for their solidarity against the ravages of defamation laws

Blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia
Blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia

Belligerent newspaper columnist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia mounted an artful retreat in the face of a defamation suit brought against her by Mediatoday Co Ltd, calling for “unity” amongst the press.

Caruana Galizia took the stand as a defendant in a defamation case filed by the publishers of MaltaToday, with a surprise call for journalists to put aside their differences and unite in their role of public watchdog.

She is being sued by Mediatoday Co. Ltd in a civil claim for falsely alleging that the company was being sold to the General Workers Union.

“On further reflection, I think the situation of journalists attacking each other is actually causing more harm than politicians attacking us,” Caruana Galizia, whose poison-pen blogs have often targeted members of the press who do not demonstrate fealty to the Nationalist Party, said.

“Abroad you have a 'journalists versus politicians' situation, but in Malta it is 'certain journalists and politicians against other journalists and politicians.'”

She noted that the majority of Maltese newsrooms were in the employ of one political party or another, but that “thankfully I’d like to think Mr. Balzan and I have the freedom to report as we see fit because we are not employed by political parties.”

She echoed sentiments regularly expressed by Saviour Balzan, managing editor and co-owner of Mediatoday, that libel cases were a deterrent to journalists due to high costs and time wasted. “I notice many of my fellow journalists stop short of outright criticism [of politicians], simply to avoid vexatious lawsuits.”

Caruana Galizia said that she had no interest in carrying on “a stupid and pointless personal battle.”

“Mr Balzan and I both have the same concerns. The law needs to be changed and the pressure for this to happen is not going to come from politicians as they are well served by the law as it stands. The pressure should come from journalists who are independent. We cannot carry on like this.”

The columnist was recently ordered to pay €3,000 in civil damages for libel to Julia Farrugia, the former editor of Illum. In the corresponding criminal libel case, Caruana Galizia was acquitted on a technicality – a missing criminal complaint.

In his judgment for the criminal libel case instituted by former Illum editor Julia Farrugia, magistrate Francesco Depasquale also seized  the opportunity to pass comment on what he called the “ambivalent situation” created by the continued existence of criminal libel in Malta.

The court quoted a resolution by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, which exhorted member states to “abolish prison sentences for defamation without delay” and that the continued existence of prison sentences for defamation, even if these are not actually imposed, still allowed those countries to impose them and “provoking a corrosion of fundamental freedoms,” said the court.

The magistrate once again hammered home the points in favour of the abolition of criminal libel proceedings. He had already expressed his views in previous judgments, including when he referred the matter to the Constitutional Court to deem whether simultaneous civil and criminal libel suits potentially breached the human right to freedom of expression.