In-Nazzjon hit with €4,000 libel judgement over Silvio Scerri story

Former ministerial aide Silvio Scerri sued Alexander Attard for libel in August 2014, after the PN organ ran a story entitled 'Arrogant decisions and political interference lead to resignations'

Silvio Scerri, once chief of staff to Manuel Mallia
Silvio Scerri, once chief of staff to Manuel Mallia

A court of Magistrates ordered the former editor of PN organ In-Nazzjon to pay €4,000 in damages to Silvio Scerri, once chief of staff to minister Manuel Mallia, for falsely alleging that Scerri's political interference had led to the resignations of the Head of the Security Services and his deputy.

At the time, Mallia was the minister responsible for home affairs.

Scerri had sued Alexander Attard for libel in August 2014, after the PN organ ran a story titled “Arrogant decisions and political interference lead to resignations.”

The report claimed that sources had told in-Nazzjon that the Deputy Head of the Secret Service, Mark Galea, had resigned from the post because of a lack of professionalism in the way his superior, Michael Cassar had been managing it. The article asserted that “the department had practically become a Labour party club,” under Cassar's management after the last General Election.

Galea, who held the rank of Major in the Armed Forces of Malta at the time, was reported to have retired from the Secret Services in 2010, but had rejoined at Mallia's request after the 2013 election.

“Galea's problems continued to pile up because when he had tried to draw the attention of the Ministry managed by Manwel Mallia, his Chief of Staff Silvio Scerri had stuck up for Cassar. This led Galea to strengthen his theory [about mismanagement], especially after Scerri's excessive interference.”

The Nazzjon article also went on to claim that Mario Schembri had also tendered his resignation for the same reason but that this had not been accepted.

But Galea, who had been summoned as a witness by both sides, had testified that Scerri had never involved himself in the decisions or activities of the Secret Service. Galea had maintained that although he had nothing against Secret Service Head Michale Cassar, he had disagreed with him on how it should be run and had eventually elected to return to the AFM. After Cassar was appointed Commissioner of Police, Maj. Galea had returned to the Secret Service.

The other person who was alleged to have resigned because of political interference, Mrio Schembri, was never produced as a witness.

The defendant had argued that the article constituted “fair comment on facts that were substantially true and verifiable.”

Scerri was a civil servant acting in an official capacity and therefore was subject to wider limits of acceptable criticism than a private individual, he argued.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, however, found for the plaintiff, quoting from the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in Axel Springer v. Germany, which held that freedom of expression carried with it duties and responsibilities that also apply to media coverage of matters of serious public concern.

Special grounds are required before the media can be dispensed from their ordinary obligation to verify factual statements that are defamatory of private individuals, depending on the nature and degree of the defamation and the reliability of the sources, the court said.

Not only had no evidence had been brought to support the allegation that political interference had been behind the resignations, but one of the two persons who resigned had testified no less than three times that the plaintiff had never interfered with his work.

Despite the assertion that the allegations were verifiable, no verification was shown to the court and so the defence of “fair comment on facts that are substantially true” could not subsist.

The magistrate said he could not but agree with the observations made by the Court of Appeal in its decision on Sylvana Debono vs Alexander Farrugia last January, in which it was held that the right to freedom of expression was not a licence to sully somebody's reputation and to then try to hide behind this right.

“It is not right or correct to use this defence in an attempt to defend the indefensible.”