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Sunday Times files libel appeal

The Sunday Times has filed an appeal contesting it ever intended to defame the nurses’ union executive when it reported that a “top MUMN official” was being investigated in connection with a scam swindling public hospital patients.

The newspaper vehemently denies the court’s ‘unfounded’ and ‘baseless’ declaration of collusion

The newspaper contends that the Magistrates’ Court did not follow the principles established through case law for libel and defamation when it ordered The Sunday Times editor Steve Mallia and journalist Ariadne Massa to pay €11,500 to four executive members of the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses.

The appeal is based on six grounds: whether the person in question could be identified; the right to investigative journalism; inadmissible evidence; the lack of an intention to defame; the extent of the damages; and the censure of the Magistrate’s court’s statement that it “could almost” conclude there was collusion between the newspaper and the Health Ministry.

The case centres on an article published on August 22, 2011, titled Patients Swindled In Scam: Top MUMN Official Investigated.

The article correctly reported that a nurse and a salesman had swindled vulnerable patients out of hundreds of euros by offering therapy not provided by the State and leading them to believe it was free; a story the appeal argues was clearly in the public interest.

The story quoted correctly from an internal inquiry commissioned by the Health Ministry, which was handed over to the Police Commissioner for further investigation.

The story further amplified that the nurse involved was “employed in a managerial position at Mater Dei Hospital and occupied a top post” within the MUMN structures – but did not name the individual concerned even though the newspaper was aware of his identity.

However, the court ruled that it “could almost conclude that there was collusion between the journalist and the Health Ministry to cause harm to the [executive members] of the MUMN”.

In its appeal this newspaper vehemently denies this “unfounded” and “baseless” declaration that negatively impinges on the journalist’s personal and professional reputation. The court, the appeal continues, was unjustified in making such a statement without any proof or indication.

The appeal also contests the court’s decision to pick on frivolous and minor details to conclude that Mr Mallia and Ms Massa had the intention to defame when they published and wrote the article respectively.

It also contends the court made a “hurried and wrong assumption” when it presumed that the average reader was familiar with the structure of trade unions and through the word “top MUMN official” could automatically deduce that the person concerned was automatically a member of the union’s executive – as opposed to being the chairman of the union’s Mater Dei Committee.

The appeal contends that in law none of the four union officials was entitled to launch libel proceedings as the article referred to one “top official”, not “officials” – without identifying the individual.

This argument is based on a 1953 case, Dom Mintoff v Carmelo Schembri, which held that if a person is not identifiable one would not be able to know who was being referred to from that collective class.

Furthermore, the appeal continues, the magistrate’s statement that through the judgment and award of damages the court was sending “a clear message to the media in general that if they failed in their duties they would have to face the consequences” goes against the principles of Maltese law.

The appeal contends that exemplary damages are not recognised by Malta’s legal system and are considered to go against the public order.

“According to the Press Act, damages are intended to be of a restorative nature... and not to convey a message,” the appeal states.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale had ordered the journalist to pay MUMN president Paul Pace and general secretary Colin Galea €3,000 each, while vice president Maria Cutajar and financial secretary George Saliba are to receive €2,000 each.

Moreover, the court ordered the editor to pay the four a total of €1,500 for “failing to verify” the work of a member of his team even though the story – the essential facts of which were uncontested – was deemed to be in the public interest.

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