Simon Busuttil wins €7,000 in damages over Gaffarena story

The court commented that the right to freedom of expression was not the same as the right to invent

Former Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil has been awarded €7,000 in damages
Former Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil has been awarded €7,000 in damages

Former Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil has been awarded a total of €7,000 in damages over a number of articles and news bulletins alleging that he met with businessman Joe Gaffarena before the 2013 general election in a bid to obtain documents, which would be damaging to former European Commissioner John Dalli. Busuttil was PN deputy leader at the time.

The story broke on the Maltese language paper it-Torca on August 2nd  2015, where it was alleged that Busuttil, before the election had asked to meet Joe and Marco Gaffarena to be given information about the 20-year-old Daewoo scandal, in order to undermine Dalli. 

According to the article, the Gaffarenas had not brought any documentation but insisted that Busuttil must help them obtain a permit for a petrol station in Qormi if he were to be elected.

A total of five libel cases relating to the allegations were filed by Busuttil against Aleander Balzan of ONE News and Josef Caruana of l-Orizzont. The defendants argued the articles constituted fair comment of a political person and that the allegations were not defamatory.

They also argued that they had simply reported what had already been reported by another news outlet. However the court dismissed this argument, saying that once a news item is republished, the carrier must bear responsibility for the content.

Quoting European jurisprudence on the matter of fair comment, magistrate Francesco Depasquale ruled that even if a statement is in fact a value judgment, there must exist a sufficient factual basis to support it.

The court noted that the story was based on an anonymous source’s information which was corroborated by Gaffarena when the author had met him. But the court, having heard the testimony of Joseph Cassar, who had organised the meeting, ruled that he was more consistent than the Gaffarenas.

The court without hesitation said it had no doubt that the versions given by Joseph and Marco Gaffarena were not true and was dictated by the hatred they had towards Busuttil and the PN as it had been refusing to accommodate him and issue a MEPA permit for the  petrol station which had been closed down due to an illegal storey being built.

It observed that the Gaffarena family had expected that as it had paid €20,000 to the PN a few weeks before the meeting, it would be issued the permit. “When it did not happen, they were prepared to make untrue allegations even under oath.”

Whilst journalists had the duty and the right to report items of public interest, they were obliged to do so in good faith and not smear persons with untrue allegations. The court commented that “the right to freedom of expression is not the right to invent.”

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