The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has publicly welcomed the Appeals Court judgment that overturned the fines imposed by two libel suits filed by Patrick Dalli, husband of Equality Minister Helena Dalli.
In two parallel judgments on Friday, Judge Anthony Ellul, quashed the €10,000 fine awarded by the first court to Dalli, saying “A journalist has a duty to investigate and report on matters of public interest”.
Dalli had instituted two libel cases on articles written by journalist Caroline Muscat in The Times of Malta in 2014 that had reported on illegal works carried out at a farmhouse situated in an ODZ (Outside Development Zone) area, that was owned by Pada Builders Limited, in which the Dallis have 99% ownership.
The reaction by the Equality Minister’s husband was to take to social media to warn the journalist that it was “not over”, despite a clear warning from the Judge that libel laws must not be used by public persons as a political weapon against freedom of expression.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media welcomed the Appeals Court’s decision, recognising it as one in defence of press freedom. “I salute the judge’s stance: ‘a journalist has a duty to investigate and report on matters of public interest,” Harlem Désir said.
I welcome the significant verdict by an appeals court in #Malta overturning earlier court decisions ordering journalist @muscatar @TheTimesofMalta to pay libel damages. I salute the judge's stance: “a journalist has a duty to investigate & report on matters of public interest.”
— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) March 12, 2019
On Monday, Patrick Dalli posted a comment on The Shift News’ Facebook page beneath the post on an article that highlighted the importance of the judgment at a difficult time for the profession. Journalists’ access to information is increasingly restricted, and those who investigate government corruption are regularly targeted, more than a year after Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated.
Judge Ellul included a note of caution in his judgment, on the vexatious use of libel suits by public figures as a way to intimidate journalists.
The husband of the Equality Minister responded with a post targeting the journalist only a few days after a four-year long battle to win the case: “Don’t worry Caroline, it is far from over. We will meet again in court”.
When the first Court had ruled in favour of Dalli, memes had appeared on pro-government social media accounts using the €10,000 fine as a weapon to discredit reputations, and linked to comments calling for more bombs. The comments beneath the post included Malta government staff.
Caruana Galizia’s sister responded to the post by the Equality Minister’s husband. “Patrick Dalli, openly threatening a journalist is not a good look, particularly after two court rulings that The Times of Malta’s reports that you object to were in the public interest,” Corinne Vella said.
The judgment defended the right of the press to scrutinise politicians. It confirmed a journalist’s right also to investigate possible misconduct by the spouses of public figures as a matter of public interest.
The Appeals Court noted: “It was evident that when originally doing all that development without a permit, the applicant [Dalli] did not bother to safeguard his reputation nor that of his wife, a member of Parliament and hence a public person”.
Judge Ellul quoted one of the international principles sustaining quality and ethical journalism: “Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist”.