Statewatch News Online: Malta: Courts set yet another dangerous precedent against the Free Press

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Malta: Courts set yet another dangerous precedent against the Free Press

The Journalists' Committee regrets to note yet another court ruling that seriously undermines the journalists' freedom of expression and their ability to do their job.

The Constitutional Court turned down an appeal by The Times against a sentence that has serious implications on the concept of qualified privilege and the journalists' ability to report what is said in open court.

The case goes back to 1995 when journalist Sharon Spiteri reported that lawyer Tonio Azzopardi had been found in contempt of court by Magistrate Silvio Meli. Ms Spiteri, who was the newspaper's court editor at the time, was in the courtroom when she heard the magistrate find the lawyer in contempt of court but the record of the proceedings did not reflect what the magistrate said in open court.

Dr Azzopardi protested and The Times carried a correction to clarify that the action was not actually taken against him, but the lawyer still sued for libel.

During the proceedings, police inspector Peter Paul Zammit, who was in the courtroom when the incident took place in 1995, confirmed he heard the magistrate find Dr Azzopardi in contempt of court, adding that the magistrate was "very angry".

In November 1999, the First Hall of the Civil Court found in favour of Dr Azzopardi. The Times appealed but the Court of Appeal confirmed the first court's judgment in 2003. The Constitutional Court, presided by Mr Justice Joseph Camilleri, Mr Justice Joseph Filletti and

Mr Justice Tonio Mallia, confirmed the sentence again last week.

The Journalists' Committee finds the judgment unacceptable as it undermines the journalists' qualified privilege as enshrined in the Press Act, which states in article 12a that editors and publishers can defend themselves from libel proceedings if they prove that "the information published consisted of an accurate report of a speech made at an important public event by an identified person who knew or could have reasonably known or expected that the contents of that speech was to be published in a newspaper or in a broadcast...".

We believe the case fits the parameters of this article.

"The public has a right to know what actually happens exactly in a court of law, and journalists have a duty to report it," Committee Chairman Karl Schembri said. "The newspaper has proven that its version of facts was correct with the corroborating testimony of Inspector Zammit. The sentence shifts responsibility of the magistrate in question to communicate his actions adequately onto the journalist and confirms yet again how biased our law courts are against journalism and the free press."

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