Photo: Still from Malta Independent footage (April 2016)
Libel laws can be just as handy to deflect uncomfortable questions as they are to clear one’s name of false accusations. Take Konrad Mizzi’s recent decision to drop a number of lawsuits he had filed against journalists and Nationalist politicians a few years ago in light of accusations that he had set up an offshore structure with the intention of laundering money.
Besides clearing his name in the long-term, the lawsuits had a more short-term political benefit for Mizzi in that they provided him with a ready-made response whenever somebody challenged him for the umpteenth time about his role in the Panama Papers.
“As you well known, I’ve filed a number of libels in this regard and I will eagerly await the truth to emerge in court.”
Journalists grew used to this brick walling which, although obviously frustrating, did make sense. After all, statements said behind the four walls of the courtroom are uttered under oath, and if Mizzi was ready to face such testimonies from the stand, it was a clear sign of his confidence that the truth will prevail in his favour. Right?
But then, weeks before Nexia BT partner Karl Cini was scheduled to testify, Mizzi suddenly dropped the lawsuits, arguing that his own libels were a waste of time and that a judge’s decision not to launch a magisterial inquiry into the Panama Papers meant that his name was already cleared.
The end result: a few raised eyebrows and a couple of angry tweets, but no doubt the public will forget all about this incident in a few days’ time.
Yet this saga is the perfect example of what an utter farce Malta’s libel laws can be. It shows that people can drag journalists to court, even if they know they are telling the truth, take advantage of the fact that the wheels of Maltese justice move ever so slowly, and then back out when it comes to the crunch and the public would have long since grown tired of the story.
It also shows that there are obvious glaring loopholes in our libel laws, which were written with the intent of protecting people from false accusations and defamations but which are being abused by people who want an easy way out of a spotlight they created for themselves.
As it stands, a journalist (or anyone else) found guilty of libel is liable to a maximum €10,000 fee in damages. Fair enough, but what if it’s the other way around? What if the court rules in favour of the journalist or if the plaintiff backs out against the journalist’s own wishes?
As it stands, the plaintiff in such cases will only have to pay the journalist’s legal fees, a financial cost they would only have had to fork out because the libel would have been filed in the first place. There is no concept of extra damages, no way the court can force the plaintiff to compensate the journalist for the damages they incurred due to the time-consuming nature of a lawsuit, not to mention the reputational damage s/he would have probably suffered due to the plaintiff (often a politician) having branded them a liar all over the press and their personal social media pages.
If a politician wins a libel suit, they get a sum of cash and the satisfaction of having been proven right. If a journalist wins a libel suit, all they get is the satisfaction.
If we want to preserve the integrity of our libel courts, this concept of damages must work both ways, and magistrates should be empowered to force plaintiffs to pay journalists if they lose their case or if they drop it against the journalist’s will. After all, people would be naturally less likely to file frivolous libel cases intended solely to deflect criticism and questioning if they know they will eventually have to fork out a hefty sum of money.
Meanwhile, when cases do get filed, the public will automatically be aware that the plaintiff is so confident in their version of events that they are willing to undergo this added risk.
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