MaltaToday acquitted in criminal libel over Frans Sammut obituary

MaltaToday Managing editor, obituary writer acquitted of criminal libel in complaint filed by Frans Sammut’s wife after son Mark Sammut’s threats of legal action back in 2011

Mark Sammut (left) had threatened MaltaToday with legal action over his father's obituary despite two consecutive clarifications published in the newspaper.
Mark Sammut (left) had threatened MaltaToday with legal action over his father's obituary despite two consecutive clarifications published in the newspaper.

MaltaToday’s managing editor Saviour Balzan and writer Mark Vella have been acquitted of criminal libel after the wife of the later Frans Sammut filed a police complaint on an obituary of her novelist husband.

The complaint to the police was filed in 2011 on the back of a series of email exchanges with her son Mark A. Sammut, a notary and employee of the European institutions who recently authored a polemic on the Panama Papers.

READ IT HERE Obituary | Frans Sammut - The last samurai

Before criminal action was filed, MaltaToday had obliged with two consecutive clarifications on the obituary in its print editions, seeking an amicable resolution. The clarifications were sought by Mark Sammut in emails that this newspaper has presented to the court.

Sammut still proceeded with legal action despite the newspaper's and author's willingness to publish an apology for certain references to Frans Sammut's character, which were however not altered in the original obituary.

Amongst other things, Mrs Sammut had felt aggrieved by what she claimed were insinuations that her late husband’s magnum opus Samuraj had been part-autobiographical, that his literary career had failed, and objected to Sammut being described as “boisterous and booming” and “teetering on the fringes of the loony left” and “exhibiting the phlegm of the stereotypical Zebbugi”.

She took issue with the description of her husband as having gone “from sixties rebel to virulent retrograde”, accusing Vella of depicting her husband as a degenerate – an argument that the court, presided by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, gave short shrift to.

Vella had testified, insisting that he held Sammut in high regard and had been honoured to write about an author whom he had long admired. The article, he said, had been intended to look back at his literary achievements as well as his personality beyond the literary sphere.

“Sammut had a past and a political profile and an interesting public profile and in some way I combined the two stories together to show the different facets of this complex personality. I can say that what I wrote I had written with a great deal of admiration,“ Vella told the court.

The court observed that Mrs Sammut had explained to it that she had felt the “attack” on her late husband to be particular malicious because it had been published just four days after Frans Sammut’s death.

But it also noted that from the point of view of the ordinary reader, there was nothing defamatory about what was written. To the contrary, it said, the article could only serve to increase the public’s interest in Sammut’s works.

The court said it appreciated the complainant’s pain in seeing a recently deceased loved one being the subject of media attention and possibly also criticism, but that she must also appreciate the fact that Frans Sammut was a public person whose public actions were subject to criticism, even post-mortem.

The obituary “appears to be a reflection of the opinion and the impression that author Mark Anthony Vella had of Frans Sammut, so much so that Vella, in his testimony had insisted that he saw Frans Sammut as a pillar of Maltese literature.”

MaltaToday presented witnesses who testified to the character and personality of Frans Sammut, the author of works such as Samuraj and Paceville as well as former consultant to prime minister Alfred Sant during the 1996 Labour administration. MaltaToday also presented a serious disciplinary report by the Ministry of Education detailing Sammut's behaviour and treatment of teachers at the Marsa school where he was headmaster.

Mark Sammut is currently facing a civil libel suit by Mark Vella, over allegations that a publishing deal Vella won in a public contest had been influenced by favouritism.

An employee of the European Parliament in Luxembourg, Sammut was a former Labour candidate whose local notoriety stems from an incident where he was caught carrying a firearm at Malta International Airport; his acquittal was overturned by the Appeals Court in 2010, with a suspended sentence.

In Luxembourg, where he now works with the European institutions, Sammut is facing an administrative enquiry for allegedly threatening, slandering and intimidating his head of unit Joseph Caruana. He has made identical counter-accusations.

MaltaToday and Mark Vella were represented in court by lawyers Veronique Dalli and Dean Hili. Antonio Depasquale appeared for Sammut.

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