Maltese courts are a continental embarrassment

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) routinely trashes judgments made by Maltese courts.  But where libel suits are concerned, Malta has a perfect record. Or rather, a record of perfect failures.

Former European Court of Human Rights Judge Giovanni Bonello examined judgments by Maltese courts, where the libel case in question eventually reached the supranational court.

Every single one of them was rejected by the ECHR. Most of these were ‘political’ libel suits — the sort of suits politicians file to silence a story or salvage an unsalvageable reputation.

“All showed an admirable consistency,” Bonello said, “they all sided with the human rights predator. They all left the victim unprotected.” 

He called the situation a “human rights massacre”. And it is being perpetrated by Maltese courts.

What happens when the European court overturns these judgments in Malta?

In the case of a libel suit, the losing party is penalised but nothing fundamental changes. There’s nothing to stop them from using the courts again to bludgeon another journalist in an effort to silence a story.

This punitive use of frivolous libel suits is just one reason why international press freedom groups keep pointing to Malta as a textbook example of abuse of power.

What about court cases that never make it to Strasbourg? Not everyone can afford to fight a libel suit through different levels of courts in Malta before they reach the ECHR — especially when one’s opponent is the government or a government minister with bottomless pockets and an in-house legal team.

We all know what sort of message this sends. It’s better not to tangle with the government or a minister lest you end up with over 40 libel suits against you like Daphne Caruana Galizia was facing at the time of her death. It’s far easier to just cut one’s losses and live to fight another day.

Of course, Chris Cardona, Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi and the rest all dropped their cases against Caruana Galizia and others when they ran out of stalling tactics. They didn’t actually want the truth to come out — and definitely not the evidence. They only wanted to hide behind phrases like, “I’ll wait until the outcome of the libel suit to comment”.

Unfortunately, Malta doesn’t come off well with non-libel cases, either.

In an interview late last year, Judge Bonello pointed out that Maltese laws which have been found to be in breach of the Constitution remain in place and are still considered valid and binding.

In other countries, such laws would automatically be “null and void” the moment the Constitutional Court declared them “unconstitutional”. But the courts wait for politicians to change those laws. And so the same issues are fought over again and again in order to reach the same conclusions.

The Venice Commission has already warned Malta of the partisan risks embedded in the current system of appointing judges. But rather than make the required changes, Joseph Muscat’s response was to stuff the Bench with a few more handpicked appointees before the rules could be changed.

I suppose it’s naive to expect justice to be served in a country where even the former justice minister seems incapable of understanding it.

Owen Bonnici was slammed in court last week for repeatedly breaching the fundamental human right to freedom of expression when he ordered employees of the Cleansing Department to remove a memorial to the assassinated journalist nearly every night for the past two years.

Bonnici said his Putin-style actions were meant “to bring unity in the country”. The court disagreed.

The strongly-worded judgment described the former justice minister’s actions as a “systematic method” applied with the “thought and specific intention” of obstructing those who wanted to protest and call for justice for Caruana Galizia.

A former justice minister who doesn’t just lack an understanding of human rights, he repeatedly scrapes his loafers over them… Surely this is cause for resignation?

When asked whether he would be stepping down, Bonnici replied that the decision to repeatedly eradicate the memorial was made by the entire Cabinet and not just him.

In other words, ‘it wasn’t just me — it was them!’

Fair enough. I realise personal responsibility is an unknown concept in Malta. In that case, the entire Cabinet can resign en masse. Mizzi and Muscat have already been driven out kicking and screaming and digging their fingernails into their desks. Hopefully, the rest will have a little more dignity when they pack up and go.

Prime Minister Robert Abela’s response to the case was even stranger. He said, “just because the court made a decision which doesn’t agree with a minister, it does not mean that this results in a resignation.”

They weren’t arguing about their favourite sports team, or which was the best Star Wars film. The court found that the former justice minister had repeatedly, deliberately and knowingly trampled on the human rights of Maltese citizens.

And Abela sees this as evidence that the system is working?

If it’s any consolation, Bonnici isn’t in charge of justice anymore. He’s now in charge of your children’s education.

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