MaltaToday editor Saviour Balzan has lost a libel case he filed against veteran journalist Ivan Camilleri and has also been ordered to pay Camilleri’s court expenses.
In a judgement handed down by Magistrate Rachel Montebello on Wednesday after three years of legal proceedings, the court found that Balzan had used his newspaper to launch personal attacks against Camilleri and even his brother.
Magistrate Rachel Montebello observed in her ruling that Balzan had not only written in the most negative of terms about Camilleri, but that Balzan had also “specifically and regularly attacked his brother’s [Alan Camilleri’s] conduct when he was Chief Executive of Malta Enterprise”.
The case deals with allegations published by Balzan to the effect that Camilleri had shoplifted from a supermarket, accusations the journalist has continuously and vehemently denied. Camilleri had stated on social media on 30 October 2019, defending himself in the wake of a series of articles in MaltaToday, that the articles were written with malicious intent and with the sole aim of tarnishing his reputation.
Balzan sued Camilleri over the social media post, but the court has given no quarter to Balzan’s claims.
Magistrate Montebello found in her ruling that “The Court is convinced that this statement [in which Camilleri defended his reputation] constitutes the defendant’s honest opinion of a series of articles previously published by the plaintiff [Balzan] in the MaltaToday newspaper.”
The court observed that from the evidence presented, Balzan’s articles eventually led to Camilleri’s dismissal from his position as a senior journalist at Allied Newspapers Limited, publishers of The Times of Malta, three years ago.
The court noted in its ruling how Camilleri had, in the statement contested by Balzan, rightfully “expressed his concern about how a managing editor of a newspaper could ever have come to create such a sensational story from an innocent incident”.
The Court noted that it was “Camilleri’s honest opinion that the plaintiff [Balzan] had published the stories in bad faith and with the sole purpose of tarnishing his [Camilleri’s] reputation”.
The Court observed that Camilleri was a prominent journalist who, at the time, was working with The Times of Malta, a rival newspaper to MaltaToday.
It noted that Camilleri “is a public figure as he inevitably exercises his profession on a public platform where publicity is given through the articles published by him, many of which will inevitably concern matters of public interest and which will initiate a public debate.
“Therefore, the defendant could legitimately expect a certain amount of criticism and public scrutiny in connection with an incident where he is alleged to have committed a criminal offence.”
‘Defamation laws must be used for their intended purpose’
The Court found in its judgement, “Defamation laws must be used for their intended purpose and not to challenge the publisher [Camilleri] because he publicly denied the allegations published by the aggrieved person [Balzan].
“The personal satisfaction of the aggrieved person [Balzan] and the use of court action for defamation as a platform for further damaging the reputation of the sued person is a motive that goes beyond the purpose of the defamation action,” the Court ruled while dismissing extraneous arguments from the plaintiff.
“The plaintiff [Balzan] cannot use this court action to obtain a judicial pronouncement that the defendant [Camilleri] was wrong when he stated [in his social media post] that the story published by MaltaToday on 30 October 2019 was an invention, a lie and full of inaccuracies,” the Court ruled.
It is common knowledge, the Court noted, that defamation laws are legal tools intended to defend one’s reputation and to provide a remedy for reputational damages. They are not, however, “intended to decide what the truth is or to correct any false statements”.
Magistrate Montebello dismissed Balzan’s case and ordered him to pay Camilleri’s legal expenses. Camilleri was defended by Dr Peter Fenech.