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TOP NEWS | Sunday, 02 September 2007

Mintoff wants MaltaToday owners behind bars

Matthew Vella

In an unstinting campaign against this newspaper, former prime minister Dom Mintoff has filed the first-ever criminal libel action against MaltaToday.
‘Criminal’ libel law contemplates a prison conviction.
The 91-year-old recluse filed his suit against managing director Roger de Giorgio and managing editor Saviour Balzan, in an action that culminates Mintoff’s previous attempts to stop this newspaper from revisiting his exploits as one of Malta’s most prominent, and notorious politicians.
The insatiable Mintoff was only recently regaled with a Lm400,000 compensatory gift from the Maltese taxpayer over the construction of the Delimara power station right outside his summer residence, l-Gharix.
Last year an Appeals Court presided over by his former lawyer Philip Sciberras, who represented Mintoff in his Delimara compensation case prior to being appointed judge, raised a Lm250 fine from a previous libel suit against MaltaToday to Lm2,000.
In a comment, managing director Roger de Giorgio said, “We take libel actions very seriously, this is not only a case about fair comment but more importantly about revisionism. Yet this will not stop us from writing about Mintoff or any other relevant subject. Mintoff has always hit out at those who attempted to portray him as the man he really was. For years, writing about this man and his legacy was impossible. That time is up.”
Mintoff claimed he felt libelled by revelations over his actions surrounding the downfall of the BICAL bank, a private bank whose licence was suspended in 1972 by the Labour government of the time. To this day the bank remains under the controllership of the government, and its assets – belonging to the long suffering Cecil Pace, the former BICAL magnate – were in their majority squandered by the state’s bureaucracy.
As one of the Labour party’s most memorable leaders, twice prime minister between 1955-1958 and 1971-1984, he authored the MLP’s return to the Opposition benches in 1998 after 22 months in government, when refusing to back leader Alfred Sant on a parliamentary vote. His unruliness was to give Labour one of its most ironic of historical defeats.
He is now suing Saviour Balzan and managing director Dr Roger de Giorgio for criminal libel – which contemplates a prison conviction – over two opinion pieces by Balzan entitled “Revisiting Dom” and “Dear Dom”, all commentaries written in the aftermath of the Appeals Court decision on his libel suit.
His legal counsel was Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, the prime minister he appointed in his stead when stepping down in 1984 – and the man who was Controller of the BICAL bank in 1973 and entrusted to sell off the bank’s assets.
In the Civil Court he demanded that the newspaper settle the litigation with a Lm2,000 pay-off, but was only “granted” a Lm250 fine.
Appeals Court Judge Philip Sciberras, a Labour MP between 1979-1987, later raised the fine to Lm2,000 after Mintoff claimed the reports were aimed at damaging his reputation, offending his name, and ridicule his personality in public.
In “Revisiting Dom”, Balzan described Mintoff as “the seed to that political mediocrity we call Mintoffianism, and it continues to live until today within the structures of the government and the Maltese psyche.”
He wrote that his premiership would not be remembered for his social reforms, “but for the violence, nationalisation spree, thuggery, corruption, destruction of the environment and unbridled nepotism.”
Later, in an open letter penned to Mintoff entitled “Dear Dom”, Balzan wrote that Mintoff was uncomfortable with the press. “Your disdain for the press is such that you pumped adrenaline into Labour thugs. Later, led by il-Fusellu, they burnt down the Times in 1979. The rest is history.”
“The posse of ministers that followed you, from… the virginal likes of Patrick Holland to Lorry Sant, confirmed the level of your governance. It was bad governance. It was not incompetent but competent in its corrupt and nepotistic ways…
“…The bad elements that you have institutionalised in the system remain unforgivable. The disruption in the quality of our life, the Nasserian trait in your reforms, your flirtation with totalitarian regimes, your tolerance of violence, and your habit of surrounding yourself with sycophants and thugs are not legendary but facts.”

Imprisonment not yet abolished
Since publishing its White Paper on judicial reforms, the government has so far not moved on abolishing the imprisonment conviction for libel.
In 2005, the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs proposed that imprisonment be removed from the Press Act after acknowledging the severity of the punishment for those guilty of criminal libel.
“When originally this particular chapter came into force the political and legal climate in our country was very distant from the democratic climate that prevails nowadays,” the White Paper read about the coming into force of the Press Act in 1974. The Minister of Justice was then Anton Buttigieg, himself a former editor at the helm of the MLP’s paper Voice of Malta back in 1959.
Defamatory libel, one of the most sought after suits by injured parties, carries the maximum punishment of three months’ imprisonment and a fine.
The White Paper acknowledges that the reasons behind the provision of the punishment of imprisonment today do not necessarily exist. “Today, a journalist, even if he or she has erred, can and should be subject to a pecuniary penalty and an action for damages. That is when he or she is only guilty of the crime of libel.”

Press charges
The first journalist to suffer the brunt of the Press Act with a full three months’ imprisonment and a Lm50 fine was Joseph Calleja, editor of Nationalist satirical newspaper In-Niggieza, back in 1974.
Calleja was found guilty of having defamed Labour Minister for labour, employment and welfare Guze Cassar and exposing him to public ridicule in the 1973 article ‘Pudina bis-Sultana à la Cassar’ (Pudding with Sultana à la Cassar).
In the article, Calleja recounted how the minister had asked his permanent secretary to transfer a pregnant employee at the Gozo Welfare Department to Malta to avoid shame back in Gozo. Cassar sued Calleja for libel, claiming the article conveyed the implicit message that the employee had been impregnated by the minister himself.
Adding a list of particular ingredients for the ‘pudding’ – eggs, sausage, sultanas, ‘lots of movement’ – Calleja was found to have written “through thinly-veiled words, an indubitable pornographic description of the sexual act with consequences of pregnancy”.
The sentence was reduced to two and a half months by Judge Maurice Caruana Curran.

Revisiting Dom:

Dear Dom:

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