MaltaToday arson reports vindicated as judge throws out Norman Lowell appeal

Appeals Court Judge says Lowell ‘threatened and used words of intimidation and then expected media to handle him with silk gloves, precisely a case of cowardice’

Defeated: far-rightist Norman Lowell had his appeal thrown out by the Maltese courts
Defeated: far-rightist Norman Lowell had his appeal thrown out by the Maltese courts

The court of appeal has dismissed an appeal in a libel suit instituted by far-rightist and Holocaust denier Norman Lowell against MaltaToday and upheld the original decision by the Court of Magistrates.

Lowell had filed an appeal after Magistrate Francesco Depasquale had thrown out the man’s original libel suit in October 2015. The libel had been filed after Lowell took exception to three newspaper reports in May 2006 that insinuated that his followers had been behind a spate of arson attacks on journalists and charities.

He claimed that the articles had been based on falsehoods and had been written with the aim of damaging him and breaching the principles of freedom of expression and opinion.

Lowell had originally filed the libel case against MaltaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan, MaltaToday editor Matthew Vella and journalist Kurt Sansone. However, proceedings against the latter were withdrawn after Sansone, who later left the MaltaToday newsroom, had made an apology.

Balzan and Vella had argued that the articles were justified by the right to freely report facts of a social and political nature, particularly in view of the “essentially racist” politics of the plaintiff and the importance of the right to “fair comment” in a democratic society.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, citing several local and European Court cases, held that, in view of Lowell’s extremist outpourings, the articles were not libellous but factual. As a political person, Lowell was subject to higher levels of public scrutiny and criticism, added the magistrate.

In throwing out the libel suit, the court noted that Lowell’s behaviour and comments he had made on broadcast media were “not in any way acceptable in a democratic society, where diversity and multiculturalism form the foundations of Maltese society, as shown by the very language we speak.”

In his appeal application, Lowell had argued that the first court had not examined whether the articles were libellous, saying that they did not constitute fair comment, that the court was prejudiced against him and that the sentence was “excessively verbose and irrelevant in the greater part.”

But in a decision handed down earlier today, the Court of Appeal, presided by judge Anthony Ellul, disagreed with everything the applicant said.

“I am not a neo-Nazi,” Lowell had asserted to the court. “I would be booted out of a Nazi party within five minutes… I am a libertarian.”

But quoting liberally from various posts on his website and online comments, the court observed that there was no doubt that the appellant wished Malta to be the first country in Europe where there were no immigrants. The court said that the use of the word neo-Nazi in the context it appeared, was a value judgment. “In the opinion of the court, the only message a reasonable reader would receive from the applicant is one of racism, xenophobia and hatred. In the circumstances, that he is described as a neo-Nazi cannot be taken to be libellous.”

Lowell had never denied making the xenophobic comments, which could reasonably lead readers to conclude that he was a fanatic with a position of zero-tolerance towards the presence of immigrants in Malta, noted the judge. “It is evident that, on this subject, there is no space for discussion with the appellant.”

The court noted that Sansone’s renunciation of his article did not imply that it was libellous, as Lowell appeared to argue. “This is a position that this defendant chose to take.”

On his objections to being linked with an arson attack on columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had also taken a stand against his extremist rhetoric, the court said “one doesn’t need to be a professor to understand the applicant’s message. Threatening and using words of intimidation and then he expects the media to handle him with silk gloves. This is precisely a case of cowardice (“persuna li titfa’ l-gebla u wara tahbi jdejha”).”

The judge ended his judgment with a quote from the Council of Europe publication Journalism at Risk (2015).

“When people who are not public figures engage in hate speech, it might be wise to ignore them entirely. Freedom of speech is a right for everyone, including politicians and public figures, and it is the job of the journalist to ensure that everyone has their say, but that does not mean granting a licence to lie, to spread malicious gossip or to encourage hostility and violence against any particular group. When people speak out of turn, good journalism should be there to set the record straight for all ”

The court dismissed the appeal, also ordering Lowell to pay the costs of the case.

Lawyer Veronique Dalli appeared for the defendants.

In a statement, MaltaToday executive editor Matthew Vella welcomed the confirmation of the first court’s decision. “Saviour Balzan and I are pleased with this outcome, which is a victory for combative journalism against the far-right in Malta, which demands to take up space in the democratic environment with its agenda of hatred and racial discrimination. We thank all our lawyers, past and present, who were with us in this overlong court case, as well as all past supporters of our libel fund.”