The Malta Independent 10 July 2020, Friday

Updated: Muscat says he will drop Caruana Galizia libel if family accepts Egrant inquiry conclusions

Thursday, 19 September 2019, 09:48 Last update: about 11 months ago

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has replied to a Council of Europe Commissioner who urged him to drop libel proceedings against Daphne Caruana Galizia, by stating that he had already formally said he would do so if the Caruana Galizia family make a declaration to the effect that they accept the findings of the Egrant Inquiry.

"This independent Inquiry, presided over by a Magistrate, had exonerated me and my family from very serious accusations levelled against us by Ms Caruana Galizia and found that the documents that were supposed to prove wrongdoing were forged. The findings were immediately made public by the Attorney General," Muscat said.

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The family of the assassinated journalist responded to this, by saying that when Muscat had made this declaration originally in court, "we said we will not concede to extortion by our public servants. Our position on not accepting blackmail will never change." They gave a number of other reasons for not accepting, including that the family did not have access to the whole report.

Earlier today, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović had urged Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to withdraw the defamation law suits. In a letter to Muscat, the Commissioner also highlights that legislation in Malta that allows the passing of defamation cases to heirs "puts journalists and their families at risk and have a chilling effect on investigative journalism in particular. I urge your authorities to take measures to repeal these provisions which represent a real threat to journalistic freedom in your country."

"At the time of her death, Daphne Caruana Galizia was facing over 40 civil and criminal defamation suits. While the criminal defamation suits were closed, I note that under Maltese law, the plaintiff can decide whether to continue to pursue a civil suit against the defendant's estate. I have been informed that, as a result, some 30 civil defamation claims continue posthumously against the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia. This situation raises several issues of great concern not only to the Caruana Galizia family, but also to the protection of media freedom and, more broadly, to the rule of law in Malta," the Commissioner said.

" I understand that in accordance with Maltese law, in defamation suits the burden of proof lies with the respondents. In the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, this means that her heirs could be expected to reveal information on her journalistic work and sources. In my opinion, this is not only an excessive and very complex burden for the respondents but may also constitute an undue interference with the right to protection of journalistic sources, a principle that is firmly entrenched in the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. Moreover, several of the aforementioned claims originate in Daphne Caruana Galizia's investigative work dealing with allegations of corruption in Malta. It is my view that in cases involving matters of public interest such as those concerning corruption, Maltese legislation should permit the courts to take a more balanced approach and consider the reversal of the burden of proof."

"Secondly, these cases put unwarranted psychological and financial pressure on the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Continuing these claims - many of which were lodged by public officials including yourself - is not only perceived as an intimidation of a family faced with the loss of their loved one but also raises questions regarding the Maltese authorities' commitment to finding and bringing the masterminds of this horrendous crime to justice."

"Thirdly, the situation endured by the heirs of Daphne Caruana Galizia stands, I am sure, as an ominous warning to all journalists in Malta. I believe that the current legal provisions which allow the passing of defamation cases to heirs put journalists and their families at risk and have a chilling effect on investigative journalism in particular. I urge your authorities to take measures to repeal these provisions which represent a real threat to journalistic freedom in your country."

"To conclude, I believe that amending the above-mentioned legislation and withdrawing the pending defamation claims will be a sign of your commitment and the commitment of your government to fully respecting the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and to safeguarding the rule of law in Malta." 

Muscat's reply

Muscat in response made reference to the Media and Defamation Act which regulates defamation actions. He said that it is a very recent piece of legislation "which was enacted by my government following lengthy consultations both at local and international level, particularly with the OSCE. This legislation entered into force on the 14th May, 2018."

Muscat argued that the new act "is progressive and forward looking. It abolished, with immediate effect, criminal Iibel and practically all related offences in the Criminal Code and in other laws. Also, the new Act provided against the filing of a multiplicity of libel actions against journalists while keeping in place a capping of EUR 11,600 on the maximum amount of damages which can be awarded under this law."

"The protection of journalistic sources was also enhanced as it was also extended to protect citizen-journalism, while the legal defences of journalists were modernized to reflect the most recent case law and jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, Muscat," said.

"I am informed that the issue of the possibility of an action in libel continuing against the heirs of a deceased journalist who would have accepted the inheritance was not raised as an issue in the professional evaluations of the OSCE preceding the adoption of the legislative act."

Muscat said that he has also been advised that the abolition of a civil action without compensation upon the death of a defendant in libel would raise issues relating to, inter alia, the right to a fair trial under the European Convention on Human Rights. "This in all effect means that the government cannot interfere in, abolish or truncate civil actions started by third parties and private citizens against the heirs of a deceased journalist who would have accepted the inheritance."

"I would therefore be grateful if your office could engage with our government to identify whether there is a common European approach on the matters raised in your letter."

Caruana Galizia family statement

The family of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia also released a statement today and said: "When Joseph Muscat said, under oath in court, that he will drop his and his wife's libel case against us if we accept the findings of the Bugeja report, we said we will not concede to extortion by our public servants. Our position on not accepting blackmail will never change."

"Furthermore, we do not have access to the whole inquiry report and therefore do not have access to:   testimony given by Daphne Caruana Galizia before the said magistrate; testimony given by Maria Efimova before the said magistrate; testimony given by Jacqueline Alexander and whether she confirmed or denied signing a trust document naming the plaintiff Michelle Muscat as the company's ultimate beneficial owner; testimony given by Karl Cini and Brian Tonna about the holder of bearer share certificates representing 99% of the equity in Egrant Inc. and in whose name they were held; reports by the forensic accountants appointed by magistrate Aaron Bugeja to examine and analyse the operational database, accounts and archives of Pilatus Bank Ltd."

 


 

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