The Malta Independent 20 October 2019, Sunday

TMIS Editorial: A small victory for us, but a bigger one for the free press

Sunday, 6 October 2019, 11:15 Last update: about 13 days ago

This week the press had one small victory and while it was but a small victory for this publishing house, it represents a wider victory for the press at large. 

It was a small victory for this publishing house because it saw its appeal against what it considered as a strange libel verdict upheld, but it also represents a wider victory for the free press with a judge ruling that it is an ‘important duty of the media is to act as a watchdog on those in public life’.

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In short, an appeals judge this week overturned a court of magistrate’s verdict against this publishing house and in favour of Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna and Karl Cini of Panama companies and New Zealand trusts fame. The appeal court actually turned the original judgement it on its head and found that the very least this newspaper could have done was to have raised questions about certain strange Panama Papers documents.

The case dealt with the possibly long-forgotten story of the HSBC Attard branch ‘information reports’ requested by Tonna and Cini on behalf of their clients OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and Malcolm Scerri, the general manager of the company Schembri owns, Kasco Ltd.  The reports, however, had been issued at a time in which the branch in question had already been closed down for some time.

The issue was a strange one but was not unfamiliar subject matter in those days when revelations from the Panama Papers were emerging on a near-daily basis.

This newspaper had reported that an investigation by the bank was expected into the alleged fraudulent documents hat vouched for Schembri and Scerri.  Just imagine if the bank did not investigate?

In fact, an investigation was carried out at the bank, and it turned out that the glitch explanation provided by the bank was well-founded and the necessary clarifications had been issued, which is why we found it strange to have been libelled by this pair over this particular story and not over others, which were far more damning.

We had never issued an apology because it was our sacrosanct duty to investigate any such leads, especially in those turbulent times, and this fact was recognised by the court this week.

The appeals court, in fact, found this newspaper commenting and asking questions about the documents in question had been a ‘beyond legitimate’ exercise.  This is especially true considering the political landscape at the time, the people involved in the story and what else they were involved in, and the fact that the documents appeared to be issued by a long-closed bank branch.

Making such questions even more legitimate, in the court’s opinion and, in fact, in this newspaper’s opinion, was the overall context of the Panama Papers revelations, which were all over the headlines at the time of publication.

That, according to the judge, placed the matter as an issue of national importance, coupled with the fact that Schembri and dealings with his British Virgin Islands companies were of the national and media interest at the time.  The same went for Tonna and Cini, who were also heavily embroiled in the scandal, having been Schembri’s and Minister Konrad Mizzi’s accountants and financial fixers.

Judge Anthony Ellul in his appeal ruling on Friday found that, ‘An important duty of the media is to act as a watchdog on those in public life and report things which are of public interest’.

We take heart and encouragement in the fact that, at least in the courts, there are people who understand and appreciate this basic tenet of the Fourth Estate.  That is, after all, what we are here for.

The Court of Appeal also found that in both articles, ‘nothing defamatory had been said about the plaintiffs. They only report facts which were true and then comments on what the consequences could be if the documents were falsified.’

That was, in fact, our opinion from the outset.  We have been through a fair few libel cases in our time and we can pretty much determine our chances from the outset when such proceedings are levelled against us.  When it came to this case, we were never in doubt that we would have won it.

It was strange that these two chose something like this to sue us on after all that we have written about them in the past.  This was clearly a case that they knew they were technically correct on and that they stood a chance of winning.  Plus, in this lawsuit, there was little chance of them being asked about their wheelings and dealings with Schembri and Mizzi.

Talk about choosing your battles and your vexatious, reputation-laundering lawsuits.

The thing is that there are more similar cases this publishing house is facing in the courts by these same people and others of their ilk. 

We hope that this week’s ruling serves as guidance.

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