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Simon Busuttil wins libel damages over Kullħadd article

'Right to freedom of expression has to be balanced with right to respect private life'

Updated 5.21pm - Former Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil has been awarded €1,000 in damages over a defamatory article which had made the front page of a Sunday paper in 2014 entitled ‘Direct orders for Simon Busuttil’.

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Toni Abela, had originally been sued for libel in his capacity as former editor of ‘Kullħadd’, but was eventually replaced as respondent in the suit by Aleander Balzan, when he was appointed judge.

The article had alleged that at the time when Dr Busuttil occupied a seat in the European Parliament, the Maltese law firm in which he was shareholder, had benefited from €500,000 in consultancy fees for services rendered to the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs.

Under the sub-title ‘A Boxing Day gift for Busuttil’s company’ the writer alleged that Europa Research and Consultancy Services Limited, in which Dr Busuttil held a 16.7% shareholding, had been awarded three contracts in 2012 for the total value of €34,000.

The same company had also been contracted to provide consultancy services relative to the opening of a wine bar, the same story had said.

In the course of libel proceedings, Dr Abela had argued that he had exercised his editorial role with all the diligence expected by law, pointing out that the article amounted to fair comment by the author who had every right to write about Dr Busuttil’s work.

The court, presided over by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, observed that all evidence produced by the respondents showed that the only government tender won by Europa Research and Consultancy Ltd dated back to September 2010 and it was in conjunction with three other companies.

That contract, worth €1,984,173, related to the construction of a mechanical and biological treatment plant in the north of Malta, the court observed.

There was no evidence whatsoever of direct orders in favour of Dr Busuttil or his company, other than a letter issued by the direct orders section within the Finance Ministry and reproduced in the article.

By means of this letter the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs had been granted approval to engage Europa to provide ‘management and technical support’ for the cost of €52,000, excluding VAT, for six months as from February 2009.

Moreover, contrary to what had been alleged in large print, the said contract had not been awarded to Dr Busuttil but to the company in which he held 16.7% of the shares.

While noting that no evidence had been produced to prove that Dr Busuttil had ‘personally’ benefited through some direct order, the court concluded that the article was defamatory and condemned Mr Balzan to pay €1,000 in damages.

The court noted that the right to freedom of expression had to be balanced with the right to respect for private life.

BUSUTTIL: NOT EXPECTING JOSEPH MUSCAT TO SHOULDER RESPONSIBILITY

In a statement, Dr Busuttil observed that the Labour Party including Joseph Muscat had been making this false claim against him for years and it was central in the elections for the European Parliament.

Now that the court had confirmed that the claim was false and that Dr Muscat and the Pl had lied, he was not expecting Dr Muscat to assume political responsibility. After all, Dr Muscat had shirked responsibility on more serious matters.   

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