Updated | Jason Azzopardi defamation case deferred for judgement

Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi faces criminal defamation complaint by former police commissioner • Labour youth section sets up ‘counter-protest’ with billboard denouncing Opposition leader Simon Busuttil’s criminal libel action from 2000

Crowds turn out to support Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi
Crowds turn out to support Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi
Peter Paul Zammit (right) has filed criminal defamation complaint against Jason Azzopardi (left)
Peter Paul Zammit (right) has filed criminal defamation complaint against Jason Azzopardi (left)
Simon Busuttil addresses crowd ahead of MP’s arraignment

A Nationalist MP, shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi, has been arraigned in court on charges of criminal defamation following a criminal complaint filed by Peter Paul Zammit – the former Commissioner for Police – back in January.

Crowds gathered outside the law courts in support of Jason Azzopardi.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil addressed the crowd, first accusing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of ignoring the accusations surfacing in the Panama Papers that revealed the offshore interests of his chief of staff and his energy minister; and then implicating him in the criminal defamation complaint filed against Azzopardi by Zammit.

“I’m here to offer my support to Jason Azzopardi. 48 hours after the Panama Papers scandal was broken, the Icelandic prime minister resigned, but 44 days since the Panama stories broke in Malta, Joseph Muscat has done nothing at all. Instead of doing his duty as the prime minister of a democratic country, he has only attacked those people who told him to shoulder responsibility.”

Crowds turn out in support of Jason Azzopardi over defamation case

The complaint concerns comments made by Azzopardi during a political press conference in June 2015, over a report by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner that said Zammit, as police commissioner, had last been in possession of a confidential file dealing with an internal investigation on police inspector Elton Taliana. The contents of that file had been used by MaltaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan as evidence in a libel suit filed against the newspaper by Taliana, but Balzan has denied that Zammit was a source, and that the IDPC did not interview him when investigating the data protection breach.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil claims Zammit’s defamation claim was being ‘backed’ by the Labour government. “It is an attack that is being used to intimidate us, to attack Jason Azzopardi as part of his duty as an Opposition MP. We are here to express our solidarity with Azzopardi.”

Busuttil insisted that the complaint against Azzopardi was “an attack on democracy” and then told supporters “not to react to any provocation”.

The government has argued that the police acted independently on the basis of a complaint by a private citizen. The PN insists that when Azzopardi made his comments, Zammit was at the time – June 2015 – head of the CHOGM task force and a government employee.

FZL erected posters deriding opposition leader Simon Busuttil outside the law courts in Valletta
FZL erected posters deriding opposition leader Simon Busuttil outside the law courts in Valletta
FZL president Alex Saliba
FZL president Alex Saliba

Members from the Labour youth section attempted to hijack the PN press conference, with smartly-dressed activists erecting a billboard accusing PN leader Simon Busuttil of double standard: the former Malta-EU Information Centre spokesperson had sued Labour propagandist Emmanuel Cuschieri for criminal libel back in 2000. Forum Zghazagh Laburisti accused Busuttil of double standards by claiming that a private citizen’s criminal defamation complaint was being mandated by the state.

COURT HEARING [Live updates]

Magistrate Joe Mifsud's courtroom was packed with lawyers, there to show their support for the Nationalist MP this afternoon. Stephen Tonna Lowell and Joseph Zammit Maempel appeared for Azzopardi. Benjamin Valencia is appearing for Peter Paul Zammit.

Data protection commissioner Saviour Cachia was first to testify, presenting a report on his investigation together with other documents. “I was requested by Mr Zammit to give an explanation of the decision. I did not say that Zammit had withdrawn the report... a witness had testified that as Police Commissioner at the time, he had requested the file.”

There was no evidence that he had disclosed the data, Cachia said.

He explained that the Commissioner of Police of the day had requested Taliana’s dossier. A Sergeant Major had told him that the dossier had still been in the Commissioner’s office when he vacated his post in March 2014.

Cachia said that he never actually said that Zammit had leaked the file to MaltaToday.

“We did not investigate the people responsible, but the breach itself… there was no evidence as to who had leaked the data,” Cachia said.

Under cross-examination, Cachia said that all the files were in a dossier that only the police commissioner had access to.

Cachia said that on receipt of the complaint from Elton Taliana, he met the data controller – in this case the Commissioner of Police – and conducted an inspection.

He said the copies leaked were genuine and that this showed a breach, and recommended tighter controls on internal data.

Cachia however told defence lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell that “it was not established when the filed had been actually leaked.”

For the defence also, Joe Zammit Maempel pointed out that the evidence had ended up in the press one month after the file had been requested by the police chief. On his part, Peter Paul Zammit – acting also on his own part as legal procurator – asked the witness whether the file had been moved elsewhere. “The last movement was in 2008, but there are minutes of movements in 2011. This is a fault in the system and I had pushed for them to be addressed.”

Taking the witness stand, the former police commissioner Peter Paul Zammit confirmed he filed his criminal complaint on 21 December, 2015.

“In June 2015 I learnt that a press conference being held outside the CHOGM offices where I worked, concerned me… there was nothing to indicate that I had passed on any copies of the files to Saviour Balzan, something that I categorically deny.”

Zammit said he met Azzopardi, whom he claimed had agreed to apologise, exhibiting the email exchange.

Under cross-examination, Zammit told Zammit Maempel – who is representing Elton Taliana in a libel suit against MaltaToday – that he had requested the Taliana file to verify claims being made in the media about Taliana.

Zammit said he had checked whether the Taliana file had been taken out, and saw that it had not, so he took no action.

“When I was made aware that part of this file had been missing, I took steps to locate it and later took charge of the investigation,” Zammit said, although nothing had resulted from it.

MediaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan also took the witness stand.

Balzan said he presented himself at the press conference Azzopardi addressed, to confront him and tell him that what had been reported in the media was wrong because the evidence he presented in the libel suit filed by Taliana, had not been given to him by Zammit.

“I told him that the IDPC had not even had the decency to summon me or question me, as the person who had presented the documents.”

Balzan exhibited a copy of his testimony in the libel suit Taliana filed, where he reiterated that Taliana had multiple, strong ties to the criminal world which had been internally investigated.

He also said that he had reported Taliana to the then commissioner of police John Rizzo in 2010, when a person revealed Taliana’s involvement in the arson attack on his Naxxar home back in 2010. “I had asked Rizzo not to speak to the source, but he chose to do so anyway.”

Zammit Maempel’s objection to Balzan’s reference to the libel case was overruled by Magistrate Joe Mifsud.

Balzan exhibited copies of documents he had presented in court, which consisted of a series of comments in Taliana’s file from 2006-2011 of serious allegations of misconduct. “The first report was written in August 2013, and the documents had arrived to me before this report; all that report was of the investigations underway, but when the libel suit as filed, we exhibited these documents as evidence.”

Under cross-examination by Benjamin Valencia, Balzan recalled Azzopardi saying that Zammit should resign for leaking the documents.

Ray Libreri, on behalf of Public Broadcasting Services chairman, Tonio Portughese, presented copies of the report on the news conference, together with raw footage.

Times reporter Ivan Martin testified, saying the newspaper had published the findings of the data protection investigation, and that his report of the press conference had not been contested.

For the entirety of the sitting, Jason Azzopardi was invisible to most people in the courtroom, shielded by a throng of lawyers observing the proceedings, unfortunately also depriving the press of an opportunity to gauge his reactions.

Also taking the witness said was police inspector Darryl Borg, who confirmed the complaint he received from Zammit in December 2015. He said he spoke to Azzopardi, who was willing to publish a clarification, but who a week later had informed him that no compromise had been reached.

Testifying in his own defence, Jason Azzopardi said he assumed full responsibility for every word said during that press conference in his capacity as a party official.

He presented the court with a copy of the Times’s front-page report of 24 June, 2015, in which reporter Ivan Camilleri reported the contents of the IDPC decision. Azzopardi remarked that the article was no longer available online.

Azzopardi said that at the time of the press conference, Zammit occupied an official post as head of CHOGM security.

“The press conference was based on the article as the report had not yet been made available. 

“Zammit was not a private person [then]… the timing is clear and unequivocal. The data protection commissioner in his decision said that the Sergeant Major told him the Taliana file was requested by the commissioner of police. It also says the last request for the dossier was made while Zammit was police commissioner.”

Azzopardi insisted that he had not crossed any red line. “I have never criticised anyone to damage them in their private capacity as a citizen, but this is a public official who was censured by the IDPC… the law is clear, that everything happening the police force is the commissioner’s responsibility, let alone a data breach.”

Azzopard said that PN secretary-general Rosette Thake had received a letter from Zammit requesting an apology in December. “Nobody had approached me in the six months preceding Zammit’s request. Had I been wrong I would have apologized.”

“The data breach led me to a reasonable conclusion that Zammit [was responsible]… to me the merits or demerits of any police inspector here were irrelevant. The subject was the IDPC decision. I don’t blame a journalist who has a story of interest in their hands.”

Azzopardi cited case-law from the European Court of Human Rights that held authors who quote from defamatory articles were protected by the right to freedom of expression. “I criticised Zammit in his official capacity. I criticised decisions taken during his tenure.”

Under cross-examination, Azzopardi said he believed that it was Zammit who leaked the information to the press. “The timeline was such that I could not but have reached that conclusion.”

Magistrate Joe Mifsud said he had reached that conclusion based on The Times’s report. “If the reporting was incorrect, the statement could not be correct either,” summarised Joe Mifsud.

Former police commissioner John Rizzo told the court that the movements of a police file are always recorded, “unless it is removed clandestinely.” Rizzo asserted that no such dossier was ever leaked during his time in the post. Had such a leak taken place during his tenure, Rizzo added, he would have launched an investigation. 

He went on to express his disappointment at seeing annotations and minutes which he had written in confidence being published: “That is property of the Police Force.”

Testifying, inspector Elton Taliana claimed that the leak was "one of a series of attacks against me”. The story alleging that he had been investigated for arson was not published in isolation, "but amalgamated with the story about Darryl Luke Borg, who was later found to have been wrongly imprisoned." Taliana added that Zammit was the chief of police when Borg’s arrest took place.

Insisting that he had never “arraigned anyone incorrectly”, Taliana went on to accuse Balzan of being "obsessed" by the story. The inspector also accused Zammit of launching “a serious of hurtful actions” against him.

The inspector had been denied the opportunity to rebut the allegations in the press.

Assistant Commissioner Neville Aquillina testified that he had asked the Commissioner of Police to speak to both Zammit and Azzopardi, as well as the Attorney General before proceeding on the case.

Aquilina said the police presented the facts to the Attorney General, who recommended that they forge ahead. He also said Zammit had every right to file his criminal complaint as late as December, six months after the allegations were made.

On his part, Peter Paul Zammit informed Magistrate Joe Mifsud that he was neither interested in having Azzopardi sent to jail nor in his being fined, saying that he only wanted to set the record straight.

In final submissions, defence counsel Zammit Maempel reiterated that paper trail led to the commissioner, who was data controller at the time the leak happened. “The logical conclusion is that he is responsible, irrespective of who actually leaked the information.”

The magistrate once again stressed the importance of correct reporting, Zammit Maempel insisted that Azzopardi had based himself on a report that was “90% correct” and that the MP’s condemnation had been aimed at the data controller.