Saviour Balzan | Sunday, 30 November 2008

Vexatious libels will not stop us, dear Charlie and Salvu

Well, I have just come to terms to how massive the Maltese tuna industry is turning out to be. We are talking of millions of liri and when the income of these magnates is threatened, then the trouble really starts.
When stories started to appear in MaltaToday over tuna and tuna quotas I have to admit that I was not very excited. When journalists raised the story in the newsroom I was the first one to query whether this story really had any relevance.
“Who cares about the bluefin tuna?” I asked.
I was rebuked by my own staff who pointed out what the whole fuss was about. Readers, as everyone will admit, are more interested in human stories; fishy stories simply do not entice them. And by the way, 'fishy' is one of the reasons the undersigned fish magnates decided to register their first libel action some weeks ago.
Yet the fact is that these stories despite appearing innocuous, are factual and correct.
Yes, factual and correct. The fact that the stories have led to a spate of libel actions has led me to believe that we are onto something BIG.
But there is no denying that the importance in an international context of the tuna story cannot be denied. And that is why, the Tuna farm owners who are Ta' Mattew Fisheries of Raymond Bugeja (Marsaxlokk), AJD Tuna of Anthony and Charles Azzopardi, Fish and Fish of Emanuel Azzopardi and Joe Caruana, and Malta Fishfarming with Saviour, Carmel, John, Lawrence Ellul (shareholders Elbros Concrete and Ebcon Investments) have for the second time running sued MaltaToday newspapers and journalists for libel in a story carried in the Wednesday edition.
Until now there has been straight reporting but the fish farm magnates' lawyer, a rather inexperienced young chap, believes it is fit to deny this newspaper the ‘privilege’ of straight reporting and expects us to shut up. The last time I met him in court was when Dom Mintoff had sued this newspaper.
There is so much money involved in this business that the tuna farm owners believe that if we continue to faithfully report what is being cited in the European Commission and what international agencies are saying, then they have every reason to libel.
Well I’ll be damned. Even if it means appearing in front of the same magistrate (Michael Mallia) for sixty times it does not mean we will not carry on.
Individuals such as ‘il-poodle’ Charles Azzopardi, and Salvu Ellul of Elbros, cannot possibly think I will be intimidated by their libels. They should really have asked about me before asking their youngish lawyer to act. Either they think I am a fish that wriggles and dies out of water, or else they imagined that I would buckle under pressure.
In 25 year of journalism I have met far more colourful and awful characters than Salvu and Charlie, and nothing has stopped me so far.
Their young legal counsel should have at least advised them that libels make me more determined not less. And if they want to know what it takes to break MaltaToday they should better think of something more dramatic than a flurry of libel actions.
If they think that I will sit down and negotiate with them over a correction or apology they are very mistaken. Unlike other cases, we will fight this case and more importantly I have encouraged our newsroom to invite foreign journalists to raise the alarm over these vexatious libels and the content of these libels. And what's more: not to leave any stone unturned in investigating the local tuna industry and the business behind them.
The show has just begun and I mean it. George Pullicino and his entourage will also come under scrutiny.
If Charles Azzopardi has the privilege to choose what kind of frozen fish he plonks onto his shop counters then I can decide what I carry in my newspapers. And the basic difference between me and 'Cali' Azzopardi is that apart from the fact that I will never sail with George Pullicino in my life, I will never buy from his fish shops or eat any of his fish in local restaurants, but HE will have to read MaltaToday whether he likes it or not.
The libels are not the only action taken by some of these companies. Salvu Ellul, who can boast of having had amongst his closest of friends the illustrious criminal Zeppi l-Hafi, has decided to boycott MaltaToday and ordered that no adverts are taken out for the Valletta MCP car park inside MaltaToday.
Unlike Salvu Ellul and Zeppi l-Hafi, I never slept at Eddie Fenech Adami’s doorstep or served as his bodyguard. When Salvu tal-Elbros removed the adverts from MaltaToday I did not even know that the car park, one of the most horrendous developments in Malta, belonged to Mr Ellul.
But he can do what he likes with his adverts, because it will not halt me from writing.
The other rumours in the grapevine is that I have approached people in the industry for advertising, in return for keeping silent about certain subjects.
Bullshit. If other opinion writers sell their soul with their PR agencies or marketing consultancies this one is not for sale. If anyone wants to advertise in MaltaToday or any other newspaper they should do so freely, basing the advertising on the simple fact that advertising in MaltaToday makes more business sense, than placing an advert in a dwindling Independent or in a flashy magazine without any content.
Advertising in MaltaToday to buy my soul or that of another journalist will simply not work. If there are any companies or company owners that really advertise with this in mind, I suggest they look elsewhere.
So, for more facts on tuna and tuna farms please read MaltaToday. And remember dear Charlie and Salvu, your libels had one result – they have unleashed an unusual interest in the tuna fish farm activities in this country.

Sand erosion
Austin Gatt has issued a last-minute statement saying that people should come up with an alternative for his Ghadira road proposal. Should they?
Why should anyone propose an alternative when there is no need for a road at Ghadira and when there is no such thing as erosion at the beach?
If necessary we can refer to all the government projects or government-sponsored projects that have eroded our countryside and sandy beaches. Since when did our government, most especially Austin, start to concern himself over sand erosion and green issues?
Gatt should really visit Ghajn Tuffieha, Gnejna or Ramla: there in these bays he can see for himself how illegally-constructed catering establishments have contributed to eroding sand dunes and the sandy beaches.
All of a sudden, our ministers have become all responsive to sand particles! We all know that no congestion exists in this part of Ghadira, and Gatt also knows that since Lorry Sant constructed his road in the mid-eighties, there has been little erosion of the beach.
This road has really nothing to do with erosion or congestion. Come on Austin - I always admired you for being yourself. You cannot possibly make us believe that you care about sand erosion!

Conflict of interest
Now I have to return to the question of the tuna magnates and their habit of firing reactions through their libel actions.
MaltaToday has been around for nine years. And in these nine years it has been hard determining who is a journalist first and a mercenary second.
At MaltaToday, mercenaries do not make it through a semester.
There is large amount of confusion of what it takes to be a journalist. Surely the best person to ask is Malcolm Naudi, who is not only the president of the Institute of Maltese Journalists, but a public relations and marketing businessman. He was a journalist with the Sunday Times and specialised in Pulitzer prizewinning journalism on... motor vehicles.
Today he represents the association which imports cars. For his contribution to the world of journalism he was appointed president of the former press club again.
He is not alone in living in a perfect example of conflicts of interest: there are other opinion writers who have public relations interests and contracts and who have no compunction in writing about everything except their sponsors.
And yet the Institute of Maltese Journalists continues to tolerate this position because many of them are in the same duck pond. The other day a very senior foreign executive with one government-owned company admitted that he had never met such a lame and gentle press. “It is not like this back home, “ he said.

Salary increase
The salary increase for ministers is perhaps appropriate. It describes to what extent the Prime Minister treats the general public with contempt. Here he is telling us what a difficult time we are going through, blaming all the red in his account on the credit crunch; and then he gives all his ministers a €290 a week increase.
Really... do you blame people if they do not pay their taxes, avoid VAT and invent ways to rob the government? No, I don't.
I really think that this government cannot possibly expect its citizens to take it seriously anymore.

The candidates
The list of candidates for the Labour party are distinguished by two fundamental differences. The ones that never had an iota of activity in the party and were never part of the great socialist dream, and the ones who lived all their life in the party. It is obvious that the new leadership, well let us say Muscat, would prefer to go for the looks and names rather than those who have given all their life to the party. Such is life, and perhaps this is yet another example of the superficiality of politics.

Three cheers
Three cheers to Paul Borg Olivier for hanging on to his post as secretary-general of the Nationalist party after sending the wrong email to the wrong person (the Labour secretary-general of all people, bloody hell!) and thus proving that he was requesting personal data from government ministries.
Three cheers for believing that there is no such thing as a new way of doing politics. And three cheers to Gonzi for supporting him throughout this painful episode.


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