In the balance: the evidence in the Caruana Galizia libel cases

In every case, all documentary evidence is deposited in court under the magistrate’s seal

Daphne Caruana Galizia leaving the law courts with lawyer Edward Zammit Maempel
Daphne Caruana Galizia leaving the law courts with lawyer Edward Zammit Maempel

Murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had ratcheted up a considerable financial liability with some 42 libel cases filed against her in court up until Monday, 16 October.

Already, Opposition leader Adrian Delia has withdrawn five suits he filed over reports on his role as the custodian of an offshore account for a Maltese landlord of Soho brothels.

Hotelier Silvio Debono – whose db Group even financed the Nationalist Party at one point – filed nothing less than 19 libel suits in one outing, individually costing €8,000 for Caruana Galizia to file her responses before the cases begin.

And then there is a host of libel suits filed by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, over the Panama Papers and passport kickback allegations, minister Konrad Mizzi on similar grounds, and minister Chris Cardona’s challenge on the insalubrious ‘FKK Acapulco’ claims.

Additionally, Caruana Galizia was also challenging a tax assessment for the payment of €101,000 in outstanding VAT on undeclared sales of over €560,000 between 2004 and 2012, for two magazine titles for Standard Publications.

Such post-mortem considerations for the Caruana Galizia heirs will determine the fate of documentary evidence already exhibited in defamation suits which the public has an interest in knowing – an interest that may not be shared with some powerful figures in the country.

Chief among them is geolocation data provided by mobile telephony companies for the whereabouts of economy minister Chris Cardona, when Caruana Galizia claimed he had been witnessed inside a German brothel, the FKK Acapulco, while on government business with a government aide.

Lawyer Veronique Dalli told MaltaToday that while criminal libel cases cannot be continued after the death of the accused, she suggested that civil libel cases can still continue against the heirs if they accept her inheritance, “just like any other case”.

But if the plaintiff withdraws the complaint, the lawsuit would be cancelled and the acts of the case archived. “All the evidence is archived like any other judicial act, judgments and so on, and will remain preserved as any other closed case,” Dalli said.

Contacted by MaltaToday, Caruana Galizia’s lawyer, Joe Zammit Maempel, explained that in every case, all documentary evidence is deposited in court under the magistrate’s seal.

This means that it can’t be lost or destroyed easily, even if the case is withdrawn. 

But the issue of whether it will ever see the light of day is less certain. Opposing a plaintiff’s withdrawal of a libel suit is virgin ground, Zammit Maempel said.

“It’s a difficult one, this, because the law doesn’t allow one to oppose a withdrawal, as long as there is no counterclaim – and it’s practically impossible to have a counterclaim in a libel suit.”

He said he did not know at this stage whether the Caruana Galizia family will oppose the withdrawal of any particular lawsuits.

Protection of evidence

The killing of Caruana Galizia by a car-bomb outside her Bidnija home has not only sent shockwaves throughout the journalistic community, but also raised very real concerns about the security of her sources and the preservation of her research.

The examination of documents and computers are a legitimate and necessary part of a police investigation into serious crimes, but concerns arise when data potentially harmful to the interests of the law enforcement community, the judiciary and the political class, suddenly ends up in their possession.

The expected forensic examination of her computer – a laptop recovered from her blown up car – will mean its hard-disc being analysed by experts. And there is also the probability of other documents being collected from her home by the police, leading to a real and alarming possibility that sensitive information could end up in the wrong hands.

A worst-case scenario would see all her confidential sources compromised. This was the subject of a court application filed earlier this week by lawyer Stefano Filletti on behalf of the Institute of Maltese Journalists, requesting inquiring magistrate Antonio Vella to ensure that this highly sensitive and confidential information is protected.

This timely intervention was aimed at giving the magistrate grounds to resist any attempts at prying by the authorities or the government.