Solidarity with David Lindsay
The editor of The Malta Independent on Sunday, David Lindsay, is being sued for criminal libel in connection with the news item he published about the Libya visa scam.
Dr Simon Mercieca is senior lecturer, Department of History
While I have no problem with editors being sued for publishing untruths, there are different types of libel. Even in Malta, we have both what is being termed ‘standard libel’ and ‘criminal libel’. Normally, individuals sue only for pecuniary compensation. In this case, the editor is being sued for criminal libel, which means that the Police Commissioner has been asked to request the stiffest penalty, prison, should David Lindsay be found guilty. To add insult to injury, the person making this request on behalf of Mr Neville Gafa’ is former Police Commissioner, Peter Paul Zammit.
This situation raises a number of legitimate questions. Why is Mr Neville Gafa suing only David Lindsay and not also the person who broke the story who happens to be none other than Alleanza Bidla’s leader, Ivan Grech Mintoff? Is it not the duty of the media, in any free European state, to report any serious allegations coming from a reliable source? In this case, the source of these reports is well known – Mr Ivan Grech Mintoff. But instead of investigating these allegations, the Police Commissioner is now appearing to be in cahoots with Gafa’ and his legal representative, in an attempt to send a newspaper editor to prison. The fact is that Mr Neville Gafa’ has cold feet and is not prepared to also sue Mr Grech Mintoff. This only goes to prove that what Mr Grech Mintoff says is true and that the editor published nothing but the truth.
It is a known fact that the police, in clear breach of professional secrecy, leaked particulars concerning Mr Ivan Grech Mintoff to MaltaToday. MaltaToday broke the news that Mr Grech Mintoff was going to the depot to give the police information about this case. This piece of news was published well before the meeting had taken place and the only ones who knew about this meeting were Mr Grech Mintoff and the police. This is extremely serious, as well as dangerous. I have seen documents and messages related to this case. Some of these documents have already appeared in the press.
But there is another important development, which Mr Lindsay could consider a blessing in disguise. Mr Grech Mintoff is alleging that a number of Libyans want to come to Malta to testify about the visa scams but that the government is hindering them by refusing to issue them a visa. Since the police started criminal proceedings, these individuals should be named as witnesses. In theory, the government cannot stop them from coming or depositing their testimonies, including sworn written affidavits in court. This case will make history once it gets going, which brings me to two other important points.
The first is the message that Pierre Portelli, Managing Director of The Malta Independent, wrote on his Facebook page. He accuses the government of – despite its stand in favour of civil liberties – turning to the police to silence the Press. In Europe, these tactics are today associated with totalitarian states.
I would remind the government that civil liberties are worthless when accompanied by oppressive policies. The first country to make transgender operations possible was Germany – to be precise, the Weimar Republic. But today it is not remembered for the introduction of such an advanced concept of civil liberty, but for being the harbinger of the extreme right coming to power. When the Nazis took power, very few wept for the loss of democracy since the previous system in Germany was only democratic in name while the country suffered from a running inflation.
This government should be on its guard for the way those who are very close to it use the police to achieve their own political ends. The impression that is being conveyed is that behind these ends lie financial and oil interests.
There are other historical precedents that have experienced the danger in adopting such methods. When, for sinister motives, a democracy starts resorting to the police to silence the opposition, democracy is in trouble. In the minds of many, democracy begins to appear as an alternative political system. Consequentially, the history of brutal regimes will start to be revised and they will once again appeal to society.
Then there is the issue of whether Mr Peter Paul Zammit, who is appearing in this case for Neville Gafa’, has a direct conflict of interest, first because he is a legal consultant to the government and secondly, it is important to establish, whether, when he was Commissioner of Police, he investigated or not allegations of visa corruption that the Labour Media was publishing against Ms Marisa Farrugia. These stories were being published in the Labour press when Mr Zammit was Commissioner of Police. His position in this case constitutes what is clearly a direct conflict of interest. I am interested to know what the stand of the Chamber of Advocates is about this point.
Hence, Mr Lindsay should not fear. I am certain that he will prove his story and I am sure that Mr Ivan Grech Mintoff will produce all the necessary evidence to support what The Malta Independent on Sunday has published, if he is asked to appear as witness. In fact, the whole case is revolving more around legal technicality rather than around the truth of the published facts. The pretext here is that The Malta Independent failed to publish a proper right of reply, because it included the right of reply as part of an article and was not published as a standalone piece. I find this argument by Mr Gafa’ and his legal representative extremely shallow. For this reason, I agree wholeheartedly with those who are arguing that this is purely a pretext to bully The Malta Independent into silence.
The point that is being overlooked here is that the law of criminal libel is very tricky. Those who resort to it should be sure of their facts. They should not rush in, eager to claim their pound of flesh. In their eagerness to prosecute the free press, those resorting to these tactics do not realize that the inherent law of criminal libel is a double-edged sword, which is not to be found in standard libel cases.
If Mr Lindsay proves his case and therefore what he stated is the truth, the matter should not end there. One expects that criminal charges will be instituted against Neville Gafa’ for having lodged a false report and wasting precious court time. These charges carry a prison sentence too.
The Malta Independent Monday 17 October 2016