The Malta Independent 21 May 2022, Saturday

Criminal libel should have been abolished in 2011 – Law Commissioner Franco Debono

Mathias Mallia Saturday, 2 April 2016, 14:52 Last update: about 7 years ago

Law Commissioner Franco Debono yesterday told The Malta Independent that the whole criminal libel controversy involving shadow Justice Minister Jason Azzopardi could have been avoided if criminal libel was abolished in 2011, as he had proposed in a private members bill. 

The ‘controversy’ that Dr Debono spoke of is the 6 April criminal libel case against Shadow Minister for Justice, Dr Jason Azzopardi which was instituted through a criminal complaint by former police Commissioner Peter Paul Zammit.

Mr Zammit took exception to comments made by Dr Azzopardi during a press conference in June 2015, where he had called for the former commissioner’s removal from a government post after a report by the Data Commissioner concluded that Mr Zammit had leaked the personal file of a police inspector to MaltaToday.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil said that the case is intimidation and is only meant to distract from the Panamagate scandal, where Minister for Energy and Health, Dr Konrad Mizzi and the OPM Chief of Staff, Mr Keith Schembri were found to have secret companies in Panama. 

Dr Busuttil said that Dr Azzopardi was speaking in the opposition's name and in his capacity as a parliamentary representative when he made the comments about Mr Zammit's continued support from the government last year.

This newsroom spoke to Dr Franco Debono, as the Commissioner of Laws, about the case and more in detail about ‘criminal libel’ proceedings, which he was very adamant on abolishing as early as 2011.

Amicable means can be used to reach settlement - Debono

While Dr Debono said that he “would not like to go into the merits of the particular case, which is still sub judice, and whilst I hope that the issue is sorted by means of an amicable settlement by the parties,” he had a lot to say about his Private Members’ Motion about major reforms in Justice and Home Affairs, which he filed in Parliament on 8 November 2011.

The Bonello Commission, headed by former Judge of the European Court of Human Rights, Giovanni Bonello, which is the front runner for Justice reform, is taking a number of Dr Debono’s proposals in consideration, one of which being the abolishment of ‘criminal libel’, although the particular clause is not being tackled at the moment.

Clause 17 of Dr Debono’s Private Members’ Motion proposes “the removal of criminal libel, as well as revising the maximum amount of damages that the guilty party must pay to reflect the damages caused, as well as extending the parameters to other methods of communication including the internet, and all libel cases are to be heard in Superior Court presided by a Judge.”

Reputation is considered by law as an extension of the physical being

In his reasoning for the clause, Dr Debono raised a number of points. In the law, reputation is considered an extension of the physical being, in fact the act of defamation falls under acts against the person including homicide, grievous injuries and light injuries. Freedom of expression is considered sacred and must be respected; however a person also has the right to protect their dignity and reputation.

Maximum penalties and increasing fines 

The rarely, if ever given maximum penalty of €11,000 was set 20 years ago and it needs to be revised as the cost of living index has tripled since then.  Apart from the fact that the internet is now a global method of defamation because, if it’s written in a Maltese newspaper it will probably only be read in Malta, whereas on the internet it can go all over the world.

Dr Debono said the fines need to be increased for two reasons: the first being to serve as a deterrent because fined being imposed today do not deter anyone from writing anything. It will end up with people saying, “It’s only a few thousand euros, I’ll just go ahead and pay it if needs be”. That being said, the second reason is also a matter of respect towards the victim. A person’s dignity certainly isn’t worth so little.

Dr Debono went on to explain that, “Malta is probably one of the few countries still having criminal libel on the statute book. I take the opportunity once again appeal for the removal of criminal libel from the statute book, which would bring us in line with the situation of most Western democracies.

Justice reform is urgent

“In my opinion just like the right to legal assistance for arrested persons, the split between justice and home affairs portfolios and other major justice reforms for which I campaigned in the past, is also an urgent reform, and the Opposition does well to raise these points in Parliament and outside. What I considered as urgent in 2011, is even more urgent today, five years later.”



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