The Malta Independent 18 July 2024, Thursday
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Overturned: Court of Appeal rules blogger defamed journalist

Friday, 10 June 2022, 14:49 Last update: about 3 years ago

The Court of Appeal has overturned a 2021 court decision that dismissed a defamation case filed by MaltaToday columnist Raphael Vassallo against blogger Manuel Delia.

Vassallo sued over a blog post in which Delia suggested that the MaltaToday columnist was “part of the mafia conspiracy that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia.”

The appeal judgment was handed down this morning by Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff, presiding the Court of Appeal. Vassallo was awarded €1,000 in damages.

In the impugned judgment, Magistrate Rachel Montebello had ruled that Delia had the right to express his conviction that Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a criminal organisation that lives in obscurity and which is implicitly helped by every person, including journalists, who propagate the opinion that she was killed only by the three persons who placed the bomb in her car.

Vassallo had filed an appeal, his lawyers claiming that the magistrate had not examined the evidence with the required detail and had made factual and legal evaluations which were “entirely erroneous, besides carrying out an imbalance appreciation of the facts stated by the parties and wrongly interpreted certain juridical aspects of the claim.”

The lawyers insisted that the first court had made “two serious mistakes” when it applied the principles emerging from certain case law.

The magistrate had not taken into consideration the typical reader of this type of blog and had instead interpreted it as a legal professional would. The first court had also not taken into account the typical consumer of social media and this type of blog, who would not necessarily understand or analyse the content in the same way as a traditional newspaper audience would, argued the lawyers, adding that social media and blog readers tended to rest on the first interpretation which came to mind.

The fact that for the court of first instance, the claim of Vassallo being part of a “mafia conspiracy” was to be interpreted metaphorically, showed that the court had a predetermined opinion of what the ordinary reader would understand, which it had then imposed, said the lawyers.

The judge said he disagreed with the argument put forward by Delia’s lawyer, who had argued that the judge was being invited to interfere with the discretion exercised by the lower court. While noting that this was the general principle followed by the courts, the judge said that “the Court of Appeal’s interference always remains necessary in cases where grave and impellent reasons which could lead to one of the parties suffering prejudice. Therefore this court cannot set aside its appellate functions so easily and must first of all investigate whether such reasons exist.”

The judge expressed disagreement with the lower court’s upholding of the defence of fair comment and honest opinion, and it’s stating that the right to express an opinion on matters of public interest, such as Caruana Galizia’s assassination, was fundamentally important to the rule of law and the fundamental principle of freedom of expression. “Here this court also disagrees…it is precisely in the light of the fact that cases such as these are ultimately aimed at protecting the right to free expression of anyone who comments or gives an opinion, meaning both parties, but always…in a just and honest manner while safeguarding the rights of third parties.”

“Here the First Court ought to have taken into account that which it had itself recognised, that is, the stature of the author with regards to the reader and the power of his words, as well explained in the appellant’s testimony, which give a certain power and conviction to his writings.”
The judge said he accepted that Vassallo, given the background of the atmosphere at the time in which the blog post was written, could have been afraid of some form of revenge.” 

“The court cannot put aside the fact that [Delia’s] actions had been well thought out, where its effects could lead to the suppression of free expression, which ironically was precisely that which the impugned article was claiming to be under threat,” noted the judge.

The court therefore ordered Delia to pay Vassallo the sum of €1000 in moral damages, also ordering that the court costs at both first instance and appeal stage were to be borne by Delia.

Lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo represented Raphael Vassallo in the proceedings.

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