Jason Azzopardi loses libel case over Lowenbrau brewery valuation comment

Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi lost a libel case he himself filed against Justice Minister Owen Bonnici since the latter's assertions were proven 'correct' by the court

Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi
Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi

A court turned down a libel case filed by Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi against Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, over claims the latter made on the valuation of the former Lowenbrau brewery.

Bonnici had said back in January 2017 that Azzopardi, a one-time parliamentary secretary responsible for government lands, had met entrepreneur Nazzareno Vassallo and assured him of a “compromise” over the value of land in Qormi where the former brewery stood.

The land was transferred to Vassallo based on 1990 prices, and therefore under-declared by around €7 million. Azzopardi denied this.

Bonnici claimed that his comment on an issue of public interest was fair since it was based on a sworn testimony by Nazzareno Vassallo in a court litigation between his Vassallo Builders Group and the winery Marsovin, which had occupied the land.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale accepted that this was correct, and that Bonnici’s comments were based on a report issued by the Auditor General where it was said that “Although the Minister for Fair Competition, Small Businesses and Consumer Affairs (MFCC) contended that the decision to value the land as at 1990 was not within the remit of the politician, this Office maintains that failure to question the grossly misrepresentative value of the land was a shortcoming in terms of ministerial oversight.”

It added that “it was the responsibility of the MFCC to safeguard the Government’s interest... it is in this context that the MFCC bears a degree of responsibility for the gross misrepresentation of the value of the land.”

Bonnici’s claims were also based on an investigative report that had been published by the Malta Independent where then finance minister Tonio Fenech was questioned on the value of the land. At the time, Fenech had said, “if Zaren Vassallo had come to speak to me, I would have sent him to Jason. If his file had been brought to me, I would have sent it to Jason. But none of these things happened.”

Fenech failed to testify in the libel suit. Bonnici’s claims were considered as political comments and could not be deemed defamatory.