Konrad Mizzi's criticism of former PN minister Tonio Fenech not defamatory, court rules

Former PN minister Tonio Fenech has lost his libel suit against Konrad Mizzi over a 2014 radio interview in which Mizzi blamed him for rampant electricity theft as a result of the smart meters introduced back then

Former PN minister Tonio Fenech
Former PN minister Tonio Fenech

Former PN minister Tonio Fenech has lost the libel suit he had filed against Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi over a 2014 radio interview in which Mizzi blamed him for rampant electricity theft.

In its ruling the court said the allegations were “criticism and comments based on facts which are substantially true”.

In an interview on ONE radio in February 2014, Mizzi had said that Fenech was aware that new utility meters were easy to tamper with and had done nothing about it.

It emerged from the evidence of a number of witnesses, that Enemalta Corporation at the time had been suffering from losses caused both by the infrastructure and theft.

In 2008, before Fenech became minister, the corporation had entered into an agreement for the supply of smart electricity meters and a centralised computer monitoring system intended to reduce electricity theft. 

Smart meters started being installed in 2009
Smart meters started being installed in 2009

Despite some initial success, theft started to increase again in 2011, at which point the corporation discovered that the smart meters for three-phase systems were susceptible to tampering using a magnet. However after commissioning an expert to assess the problem, the company had done nothing with his findings.

The court observed that the corporation’s theft control unit had only been set up during Mizzi’s tenure. It also noted that although smart meters started being installed in 2009, the central analytics system used to identify theft cases was not installed until 2014.

Mizzi raised the defence of fair comment.

The court, in its considerations, observed that elected representatives were there to serve the citizenry and move the country forward, but when additional responsibility such as Enemalta, was placed under that representative’s control, the responsibility towards the citizen increased a great deal and all actions made by the entity under his control were his responsibility.

If a shortcoming is identified, the minister concerned should shoulder the responsibility and not dust it off onto third parties, the court said.

It was clear that the Enemalta Corporation was Fenech’s responsibility, said the magistrate, and although there were plans in place to reduce electricity theft, not enough was being done effectively to do so, or identify the thieves and the figures produced during the case were a clear indication of this.

“Therefore, the applicant cannot say that the words used about him by the defendant… are libellous and defamatory as they were simply criticism of what happened in the past, criticism which is always permitted to a politician when he is talking about the actions of another politician, as long as the criticism and comments are based on facts which are substantially true and proven,” the court said.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale dismissed the suit, ordering the plaintiff to suffer the costs of the case.

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