Prime minister loses 'wage freeze' billboard libel case

Court holds that the PN's assertion that Muscat planned to freeze the minimum wage was 'based on facts which were substantially true'

A court has dismissed a libel suit filed by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat against the Nationalist Party, over an electoral billboard saying that Muscat would freeze the minimum wage, saying that the assertion had been essentially factual.

Muscat had filed the libel application on the 27 September 2012 after, during the build up to the 2013 general elections, a number of billboards had been erected around the islands with the slogan “MUSCAT: he will freeze the minimum wage” (“MUSCAT: jiffriza l-paga minima”) featuring a block of ice with the words “minimum wage” on it.

The defendants argued that the statement constituted fair comment.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale observed that Muscat, then leader of the opposition Labour Party, had addressed the party's national congress on the 18 September 2012.

Quoting a PL press release issued on that day, the court noted it as reading that Muscat had said that it would be pointless raising the minimum wage if expenses kept on rising. “This [wage increase] doesn't solve problems, rather it increases the burden on employers and creates uncertainty in the industrial and employment sectors. Today, in the economic circumstances that our country is facing, raising the minimum wage is not the main priority.”

The next day, the PL had issued a press release confirming that it did not intend to raise the minimum wage. Later that week, former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi had also mentioned this issue during an address he had made in Gozo.

The court reiterated its stance, which it had adopted in several previous libel judgments, that politicians are subject to higher levels of criticism, quoting a wealth of local and European judgments and doctrine on the matter.

It held that Muscat had wanted to transmit the message that the minimum wage would not be changed and that this message had been interpreted by the PN as saying the minimum wage would be “frozen,” although Muscat had not used that term himself.

The billboard was therefore not defamatory in Muscat's regard, said the magistrate, as it was based on facts which were substantially true and was “an expression of freedom of thought, without which we cannot describe ourselves as a democratic country,”