The Malta Independent 21 January 2021, Thursday

MEIA, major cultural figures blast ‘dangerous’ libel judgement against Pia Zammit

Albert Galea Thursday, 3 December 2020, 12:57 Last update: about 3 months ago

The Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association and a host of major figures within the cultural sector have blasted a judgement on a libel case filed by actress Pia Zammit which ruled that an article implying she was a Nazi sympathiser based on a backstage picture of her in costume at a theatre performance ten years prior was not libellous.

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Zammit had sued the newspaper for libel in 2019, saying that a report published by them had suggested that she was a Nazi sympathiser.

The paper had published pictures of her in a parody Nazi uniform costume; pictures which were taken backstage at a performance of the famous World War Two comedy Allo, Allo!.  The newspaper suggested that the actress had made light of Nazi symbolism, publishing comments by an anonymous ‘educator’ who said that Zammit’s image had been offensive to the victims of Nazism.

In the decision, Magistrate Rachel Montebello disagreed with the argument that the newspaper knew of the production as it had reviewed it ten years prior, and that the parody was obvious.

It-Torca’s lawyer Mifsud Bonnici meanwhile told the court that “a photo of a well-known person wearing a swastika is a controversial action and insisted that expressing disagreement with such actions is a fundamental human right”.

“The controversy is not that she sympathises with Nazism but the use of it in comedy. Silly things about matters of great importance are insensitive,” Mifsud Bonnici argued.

Montebello backed the argument and threw Zammit’s libel case out, ordering her to pay all the costs of the case.

MEIA hija mħassba ħafna bis-sentenza dwar il-każ ta’ libell imressaq mill-attriċi Pia Zammit kontra It-Torċa. Jekk...

Posted by MEIA - Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association on Thursday, December 3, 2020

In a statement, the MEIA said that it is deeply concerned with the judgement.

“If courts of law are unable to differentiate between the performer and the characters they play, then today we have established a dangerous and serious precedent that threatens the work of performing artists and freedom of creative expression”, the MEIA said.

“We express our solidarity with Pia Zammit. When one of us is not protected, then none of us are. MEIA will take all the necessary action to protect the Maltese artist.”

The judgement also drew derisive reactions from members of the theatre community in Malta.

Well-known actors Edward Mercieca and Noel Zarb both blasted the decision, with Mercieca describing it as a “horrendous decision” which could have “unimaginable repercussions”, and Zarb finding it absurd that no distinction had been drawn between theatre and real-life.

Toni Attard, who is one of the big names on the Maltese cultural scene, said that “we fought artistic censorship not to have this kind of travesty.”

“If we cannot differentiate between an actor and the character she or he plays then all actors performing any character in Malta are at risk, their work is threatened and so is their right to freedom of expression”, Attard said.

We fought artistic censorship not to have this kind of travesty. If we cannot differentiate between an actor and the...

Posted by Toni Attard on Thursday, December 3, 2020

Book council chief Mark Camilleri, who was one of those who penned the finally version of the Media and Defamation Act, said that the “magistrate who has given out this sentence either does not understand the law at hand or the lawyer representing the litigant made a very horrible case for his client.”

“The Media and Defamation Act clearly provides libel as defamatory untruths delivered in words. This was a clear case of a written defamatory untruth. Not only was It-Torċa's publication defamatory and libellous, but it could also have led to commercial damages which the litigant could have claimed for”, Camilleri said before noting that the newspaper of Union Press have been consistently attacking journalists, writers, artists, and activists.

Lou Bondi meanwhile described the judgement as a “clear and dangerous miscarriage of justice.”

“That our courts in 2020 accept the argument that it is illegal to make fun of murderous tyrants is to deprive citizens of precisely the most powerful weapon against them: humour. More worryingly, it undermines right to be offensive which is fundamental to a European liberal democracy”, Bondi said.

 

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