Appeals court finds for MaltaToday in former PBS head of news libel cases

In both cases, the court found that the facts showed that MaltaToday's reporting was justified and fair

In both cases, the court found MaltaToday's reporting to be justified
In both cases, the court found MaltaToday's reporting to be justified

A judge has ruled in MaltaToday’s favour, in two appeals from libel decisions in cases involving former PBS head of news Natalino Fenech.

In decisions handed down last October, Magistrate Francesco Depasquale had ordered MaltaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan to pay Fenech €2,000 in damages, holding that the article “PBS spent 10 days without a head of news” had concluded that Fenech had abandoned his workplace, without attempting to confirm this with him.

But the court of Appeal, presided by judge Anthony Ellul disagreed. It noted that the contested part of the article reads that “a few days after the general election, MaltaToday had revealed that veteran journalist Reno Bugeja was touted to replace Fenech. MaltaToday is informed that Bugeja was meant to be appointed acting head days ago, but this only occurred this afternoon. This left the PBS’s newsroom with(out) a head for 10 days”.

“These are words that give an ordinary reader the impression that from a few days after the elections, the decision was taken to remove the plaintiff from Head of News at PBS, and for this post Reno Bugeja was being ‘pushed’. In fact that is precisely what happened. Had PBS truly spent ten days without a head of news, it would have reflected badly on the PBS Board and not on the plaintiff, who was nowhere implied to have breached any of his contractual employment obligations,” the court observed.

Another libel suit filed by Fenech against Balzan, which Fenech had lost over an article titled “Gonzi’s new way of doing politics at MEPA” was also appealed, this time by Fenech, only to be dismissed by Justice Ellul.

The author of that article had described PBS's announcing that Joseph Muscat would not be contesting the Labour leadership battle as “a big fat lie,” and said that Muscat had, in fact sent a statement to that effect to Fenech, who was heading the national broadcaster's news section at the time. The statement said that Muscat was denying he had announced his withdrawal from the leadership race, less than an hour after PBS had broadcast the claim on the 8pm news.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale had noted that Fenech had published a book critical of bird-hunting in Malta in 1992 which contained “exaggerated and incorrect“ statistics provided by Fenech.

The court of magistrates had dismissed that libel case, observing that the national broadcaster had been used to transmit a false message to the viewing public. “This fact in and of itself is sufficient grounds for criticism, if necessary harsh criticism, because the news should always be true and correct and based on facts that are substantially correct,” the judgment read.

In his appeal, Fenech had claimed that the PBS bulletin had not claimed that Muscat had withdrawn his candidature, but that there were efforts to convince him not to contest.

“This is true,” said the judge. “However, the report gives the message that Muscat had been seriously considering not contesting the election. Furthermore, Dr Muscat himself had, in a statement issued shortly after the broadcast said ‘I categorically deny that I will be retiring my candidature for the party leader.’ The facts show otherwise.”

Lawyers Veronique Dalli and Andrew Saliba were legal counsel to Balzan.

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