The wheels of justice are known to move slowly at times and the recent verdict throwing out a libel case that Patrick Dalli instituted against in-Nazzjon back in 2006 is a case in point.
The court also rubbished Dalli’s defence – supported by then-MLP international secretary and now-Magistrate Joe Mifsud – that he had not formed part of a Labour Party delegation to Dubai. While Dalli insisted he had been there on private business, the court found there would have to have been “too many coincidences” for the line of argumentation to hold a shred of truth.
Dalli had sued in-Nazzjon editor Alex Attard and then-journalist Jean Pierre Debono over the article – ‘Skandlu Laburista f’Dubaj’ [Labour scandal in Dubai] published on 1 November 2006. The following week, four businessmen – Dennis Baldacchino, Patrick Dalli, Carmelo Penza and Raymond Vella –separately sued the Nationalist Party’s newspaper for libel damages over the article.
At the time, Dalli had been involved in the construction of buildings and roads for several years and his wife, Helena, was a Malta Labour Party MP.
According to Dalli’s testimony, Penza informed him he was to visit Dubai with another two contractors to drum up business, and he accepted the invitation.
According to Dalli, Penza later told him the Labour Party was organising a delegation to Dubai that included then-deputy leader Charles Mangion, MPs Leo Brincat and Charles Buhagiar and the party’s then-international secretary Joe Mifsud, who is now a magistrate. The court also established that Mangion and Dalli were in business together as shareholders of Elcar Developments Ltd.
While there, Dalli and his fellow contractors had several meetings organised by the Maltese consul in Dubai and Mifsud. One meeting in which the whole delegation was in attendance was on land reclamation.
‘Too many coincidences’
The court said it had no doubt Dalli went to Dubai to get work and that from the evidence it “amply results that he made this trip together with and in the context of a Labour Party delegation to see, among other things, how land reclamation was being done”.
In his testimony, now-Magistrate Joe Mifsud said the Labour Party at the time had been organising tours to different countries for Labour to be able to make its preparations “so that when it is in government it can start moving”.
But Mifsud also insisted in his testimony that “the contractors [including Dalli] never formed part of the Labour delegation”. The court noted that Dalli had “also tried to give this impression in his testimony”.
But the court noted how Labour Party leader Alfred Sant in a news conference held on 4 March 2008 as part of the Broadcasting Authority’s election debate broadcasts, said: “The Labour Party sent a delegation to Dubai to talk politically. They also had people giving them commercial advice on what can be done in Dubai.”
Magistrate Farrugia found in her ruling, “This Court has no doubt that what Dr Alfred Sant said in this interview reflects exactly what happened – because there are too many coincidences between the air flights, accommodation and meetings, and the two groups’ subject matter that it cannot really be believed the two groups went to Dubai together without being connected to each other.”
While Dalli said the businessmen paid for the trip themselves, the court found from the evidence that their logistical arrangements had all been coordinated by the Maltese consul in Dubai and by Joe Mifsud.
Magistrate Marse-Ann Farrugia found in her recent ruling, “In fact, the four contractors and the Labour Party delegation travelled to Dubai and came back on the same flight and stayed in the same hotel. A booking had been made at one hotel for all the people who went to Dubai. They also used to meet for evening meals.”
According to the court’s ruling, “It amply results that the plaintiff went to Dubai to get work for himself and as an expert to give commercial advice to the Labour Party.”
Dalli argued he was also aggrieved by the newspaper’s use of the word “scandal” because, he said, “I only went to Dubai to get a job, and this for me is not a scandal.”
That, the court ruled, was a matter of opinion, and the one expressed in the article is based on substantially correct facts. It said it should also be considered “fair comment acceptable in a democratic society, despite the fact that the opinion disturbed, shocked or offended the plaintiff”.
Although Labour was in opposition at the time, the court found the connection of a businessman like Dalli with a political party, and the nature of that connection “is certainly information of general interest and, for obvious reasons, which the Court does not feel the need to explain, there should be a discussion on it in a democratic society”.
The court also ruled that Dalli should have “certainly (been) aware that when he travelled to accompany and assist a political delegation, he was subjecting himself to scrutiny and public criticism, given that everything that has to do with political life, even if of a party in opposition, is automatically of public interest”.
As such, the court ruled Dalli’s complaints to be legally unfounded. The magistrate threw out all of Dalli’s claims, sustained the defendants’ objections and ordered Dalli to pay both parties’ expenses.