Judges confirm libel ruling but reduce damages award
The Court of Appeal has confirmed a judgment which had found that the Malta Labour Party and the editor of l-orizzont had libelled nine serving and former government ministers.
However, the court reduced the damages to be paid to Lm4,100 from the original Lm6,500.
The writ was filed in 1999 by former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and ministers Tonio Borg, Josef Bonnici, Louis Galea, Joe Borg, John Dalli, Louis Deguara, Ninu Zammit, Censu Galea and Austin Gatt.
Dr Fenech Adami had withdrawn his suit when he was appointed President.
Plaintiffs claimed they had been libelled by an article entitled Irresponsabbli: Ghalihom Aktar Lussu... Infieq f'Karrozzi Godda (Irresponsible: More Luxury For Them... Spending On New Cars) that appeared on l-orizzont on June 28, 1999. The article was written by the Malta Labour Party.
The First Hall of the Civil Court had found that the average reader would conclude, from reading the article, that each of the plaintiffs, all of whom were government ministers at the time, had spent an excessive amount of money on cars for their personal use. The article also implied that the public had to pay more in taxes to pay for this luxury.
It resulted from the evidence produced that each ministry for which the individual ministers were responsible had spent a sum approximate to that mentioned in the article and printed next to the photo of each minister.
However, except in the case of the ministries for agriculture and fisheries and that for foreign affairs, the cars were not purchased for the use of the ministers but for the departments.
In some cases it resulted that more than one car had been purchased to meet the requirements of the department in question.
The court concluded that all the plaintiffs, save for Mr Zammit, had been libelled because defendants had not passed a fair comment but had published falsehoods.
The MLP and the editor of l-orizzont were ordered to pay between them a total of Lm6,500 in libel damages to all plaintiffs except for Mr Zammit.
Tonio Borg, Prof. Bonnici, Dr Galea, Joe Borg and Mr Dalli were each awarded Lm900 in damages.
Dr Deguara, Dr Gonzi, Mr Galea and Dr Gatt were awarded Lm500 in damages.
The MLP and the editor then appealed to the Court of Appeal composed of Chief Justice Vincent Degaetano, Mr Justice Joseph D. Camilleri and Mr Justice Joseph A. Filletti.
The appellate court declared there was no doubt that the article complained of was libellous.
When examining the damages award the court took into consideration the fact that the libel was in a sense collective, for it was addressed at practically the entire Cabinet. There were therefore grounds for a reduction in the award.
The Court of Appeal awarded Tonio Borg and Prof. Bonnici Lm700 each in damages.
Dr Galea, Joe Borg and Mr Dalli were each awarded Lm500 in damages and Dr Deguara, Dr Gonzi, Mr Galea and Dr Gatt won Lm300 in damages.