Busuttil insists police ‘in Muscat’s grip’ over Azzopardi arraignment

PN leader says criminal defamation an acceptable law but should not be manipulated by government to attack the Opposition, claims S&D response to EPP criticism ‘written by Joseph Muscat’ 

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil (Photo:Ray Attard)
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil (Photo:Ray Attard)

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil insisted that the police, who are instituting criminal defamation charges against PN MP Jason Azzopardi, are “state apparatus in the grip of Joseph Muscat”.

Busuttil told MaltaToday that criminal defamation is a perfectly acceptable legal tool unless “manipulated by government to intimidate the Opposition” and that Opposition MPs are only charged in court with criminal defamation in banana republics and dictatorial regimes.

However, when questioned whether he thinks that journalists charged with criminal defamation are also being intimidated by government, Busuttil accused the journalist of “distorting his message” and of “conflating two different issues”.

The PN leader was speaking in light of a criminal defamation complaint filed by former police commissioner Peter Paul Zammit against shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi.

Zammit filed his complaint at the start of the year over a press conference Azzopardi convened last June. The press conference concerned a data protection investigation that found that a police inspector’s personal file, that was leaked to the press, had last been noticed in Zammit’s office, then police commissioner.

The details of the internal investigation about inspector Elton Taliana were released in court as evidence by MaltaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan in a libel case instituted by Taliana against a MaltaToday journalist.

In Maltese law, criminal defamation has not yet been abolished – despite calls from the Council of Europe – and to this day, complaints to the police on libel and slander are followed up by executive police pressing charges on the plaintiffs’ behalf. The crime of criminal defamation carries a maximum three months’ imprisonment.

Although Zammit held no public position at the time of his complaint, Busuttil insisted that the former police commissioner was “in no way” a private citizen.

“Peter Paul Zammit is a former police commissioner and a former security coordinator for the CHOGM, whose salary was paid for through our taxes,” he said. “The issue Zammit has filed a defamation case about took place when he was police commissioner. Moreover, he is complaining about something that Jason Azzopardi had said in his capacity as a shadow minister, not in his capacity as a private citizen.

“The idea that the Prime Minister is peddling that Zammit is a private citizen is a lie. Indeed, it is not Zammit who has filed for defamation against Azzopardi, but the police – a state apparatus.”

Busuttil reiterated his pledge to remove criminal libel if elected Prime Minister, but refused to offer the same commitment towards striking defamation off the criminal code.

“Defamation is a legal tool that should be accessible to whoever requires it, but it should definitely not be manipulated by government to attack a member of the Opposition.”

However, when asked whether he thinks that journalists charged by the police with criminal defamation are also being intimidated by government, Busuttil turned cold and accused the journalist of trying to distort his message.

“Please, with all due respect, do not distort my message,” he said. “If you want to distort my message, go ahead and do it but I want to tell you that you are distorting my message. I already said that I will remove criminal libel if elected. Can I be clearer than that? This means that I don’t accept criminal libel against journalists. If you want to distort my message, go ahead and do it.

“There’s a difference between the two issues that you are trying to conflate. I am speaking about something completely different, so I expect a minimum of courtesy, for you to understand my message clearly. What I am saying is that it is unacceptable and intrinsically wrong for a government to its use state apparatus to attack an Opposition member. This only occurs in dictatorial regimes and banana republics. Please register this.”

‘S&D response written by Joseph Muscat’

The local political clash has been elevated to the level of the European Parliament, with the European People’s Party and the Socialist and Democrats both stepping in to defend the PN and Labour respectively.

EPP chairman Manfred Weber, a German MEP, warned that the Maltese government has become increasingly erratic and that the country is sliding down an authoritarian route.

“Let’s not fool ourselves, this is indeed the Maltese government acting behind its henchman,” he said. “We will not be fooled and we will not surrender.”

Busuttil shrugged off MaltaToday’s question on whether it was ironic for Weber to speak out, given that criminal defamation in Germany carries a maximum five years’ imprisonment.  

“Oh.. why are you going there? The EPP is scandalised by the manner in which an Opposition MP will be charged in court. If you can’t see that, then I’m sorry but we’re not living in the same country. I’m really sorry. If you’re going to feel scandalised because the EPP issued a press release in defence of an Opposition MP… I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. A minimum of decency…”

Earlier today, S&D chairman and Italian MEP Gianni Pitella accused Weber of “playing the PN’s biased partisan games”.

“The Socialists and Democrats will not accept this kind of tactic, particularly since it is amply clear that the PN’s intent – which is a member of EPP – is to sabotage Malta’s position, moreover as the Maltese Presidency of the EU Council is approaching.”

When asked for his response to Pitella’s statement, Busuttil response was direct.

“It was written by Joseph Muscat...very simple.”