Recipients of public funds are ‘open to scrutiny’, court says in libel suit

Court throws out Content House’s allegations of defamatory libel against MaltaToday

Content House director Jesmond Bonello
Content House director Jesmond Bonello

The courts have dismissed two libel suits filed against MaltaToday’s managing editor Saviour Balzan by Jesmond Bonello and his PR company, Content House Ltd.

Both claims had been filed in April 2010.

The first libel suit, against Balzan and Raphael Vassallo had been filed over an article, written by Balzan, entitled “Did you say no corruption Dear Tonio?”

Bonello and Content House had felt aggrieved by the article’s allegations that the then finance minister Tonio Fenech had orchestrated an advertising boycott of MaltaToday using Bonello’s company.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale observed how during the period 2008-2012, Content House Ltd had been engaged to perform work for a staggering number of government departments and parastatal entities, both through direct orders as well as tenders.

The defendants had denied writing or publishing anything that could possibly be defamatory in Bonello’s regard, arguing that the article constituted “fair comment” at law.

In its decision on the matter, the court pointed out that upon entering the public arena – and allocation of public funds through direct orders was a matter open for public discussion – private individuals rendered themselves open to scrutiny. The courts were obliged to assure a balance was reached between freedom of expression and the respect for private life. Jurisprudence had established criteria which must be met for the defence of fair comment to be upheld.

From the evidence presented during the case, the court held that it was clear that that the plaintiff had received a great many direct orders from various government ministries and entities.

Bonello had denied being involved in the boycott, but the magistrate noted that, in the context of the rest of the article, the reference being made with regards to Tonio Fenech and not to the plaintiff.

As the allegations regarding direct orders had been proven and the allegations had not been made against the plaintiff, the court dismissed the case, saying there was no case for Balzan or Vassallo to answer.

Likewise, in the second libel case, filed by Bonello against Balzan and editor Matthew Vella over another article which had been penned by Balzan, titled “Did you say Blackout? Oops...” which also dealt with the boycott of MaltaToday in tenders and direct orders issue, the court also pointed to the many contracts Bonello’s company had been awarded.

In spite of their denials of ever having orchestrated a boycott of MaltaToday, the plaintiffs had never exhibited any evidence of ever having subcontracted any jobs to MaltaToday. This would have been the “simplest and most direct proof” to rebut the claims in Balzan’s article, said the court.

As the allegations regarding direct orders had been proven and the plaintiff had not presented any evidence to counter the allegations made against him, this case was also dismissed.

Bonello and Content House were ordered to foot the bill for the costs of both cases.