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Journalist loses Konrad Mizzi libel case

Editor had changed headline to one which was defamatory

A former Malta Independent journalist has been condemned to pay €2,000 by way of libel damages to Minister Konrad Mizzi over an article that was rendered defamatory after editorial alterations.

Helena Grech, the former journalist, had penned the article originally titled “Co-founder of Mossack Fonseca says company did not know Konrad Mizzi was politician,” which title was subsequently changed to “Konrad Mizzi did not divulge he was a politician - co-founder of Mossack Fonseca.”

In her opening statement, the journalist had declared that “Ramon Fonseca Mora, co-founder of Mossack Fonseca, said that at the time of providing Energy and Health Minister Konrad Mizzi with his company’s services, he did not know that Dr Mizzi was a politician.”

However, when the report was submitted for editing, an editor had subsequently changed both the title as well as the content of the article, publishing the edited version in April 2016 under the journalist’s name, a common practice in journalism.

The opening paragraph, as published, had been changed to read that Konrad Mizzi “had not divulged that he was a politician when he solicited the services of Panamanian corporate service providers Mossack Fonseca.”

However, documentation exhibited in court showed that Dr Mizzi had indicated that he was a politically exposed person and that this fact had been overlooked by Mossack Fonseca. When changing the content of the journalist’s report, the editor had published a declaration that “was totally incorrect and untrue”

"It emerged… that both the title and the content of the article, alleging that the applicant had failed to say he was a politician and which had been changed by the editors… were all incorrect and misleading for the ordinary reader,” the court observed.

After examining European case law on the matter, magistrate Francesco Depasquale observed that although journalistic freedom allowed an element of exaggeration, a balance had to be attained between freedom of expression and the right to protection of one’s reputation.

When changing the content of the journalist’s report, the editor had published a declaration that “was totally incorrect and untrue,” a fact which the editor could easily have verified had he consulted the translations of the Mossack Fonseca statements obtained by Ms Grech.

These statements had clearly shown that Mossack Fonseca had “missed” the fact that Konrad Mizzi was a politician, the court observed

Whilst stressing that Ms Grech had faithfully reported the facts in both her article and its original title, the court declared that the editor had changed the title “solely to damage and defame the applicant,” a fact which the court could not fail to condemn.

The court observed that Dr Mizzi would have benefited more had he published a right of reply immediately after the publication of the defamatory article thereby clearing his reputation.

Instead the minister had opted to issue a statement via the Department of Information and then proceeded immediately to file libel proceedings against the journalist, but not against the Malta Independent editors.

Bearing all this in mind, the court declared the article defamatory, limiting damages to €2,000 payable by the respondent.

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