Court grants €5,000 as compensation to journalist who was imprisoned
The First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction has granted €5,000 in compensation to a former editor of the newspaper called “In-Niggieża”, after he was jailed through criminal libel proceedings back in the 1970s.
On 20 September, 1973, criminal procedures were initiated against Joseph Calleja, who was the editor.
He was charged with having published an article titled ‘Pudina mis-Sultana a’ la’ Cassar’ which defamed then Minister for Work, Employment and Security Guze Cassar. The article also offended public morality.
Joseph Calleja was condemned to three months imprisonment and fined Lm50.
In a constitutional case, Mr Calleja asked the court to declare that the criminal procedures taken, and the sentencing breached his fundamental and constitutional rights according to the Convention for Human Rights. He also asked for adequate compensation.
The article stated as fact that the then minister impregnated a certain Miss Sultana. In addition, the article leads one to understand that one could go to Rome to seek professional help regarding this condition.
The former minister had then taken Mr Calleja, as well as the printer to court over the article. In those proceedings, Mr Calleja declared that he was ready to publish any statement by the injured party, that he was sorry about what happened and was ready to withdraw the allegations made in the article. Mr Calleja was then found guilty.
He served a two-and-a-half month sentence and stopped working as a journalist, eventually finding other work in the private sector.
During the case, the former editor said that he wrote the article based on information he received from more than one person, and that he trusted his sources. During the judicial process, he withdrew the allegations he made in the article against the former minister. “I didn’t have enough proof and could not put forward any more proof.” He said that it results that the allegations were false.
The Court, presided over by Madam Justice Lorraine Schembri Orland, recognised the press as one of the core pillars of democracy. “As was declared in the European Court judgement ‘The Sunday Times vs The UK’ in April 1979, the press ‘plays a vital role of public watchdog and to impart information and ideas on matters of public interest’”.
The Court said that journalists must be at liberty working in their profession, without interference so that they could disseminate information, analyse or critique society that has a right to this information, analysis and criticism.
The court also noted the gravity of the accusations that were made about the former minister, and that Mr Calleja declared that the facts in the article were wrong. The court also slammed the former editor saying that he acted with a lack of responsibility and ethics, taking into account the former minister’s marriage and private life.
“To the court’s understanding, the newspaper was a partisan one, yet through the content of this article it looked more like a tabloid or a scandal sheet. This in itself does not give it immunity to tarnish the reputation of others.”
“The Court felt that the arguments made by the injured party would have found their relevance in civil procedures and sanctions, rather than in penal proceedings that should no longer be applicable in a case of journalistic discrimination.”
Quoting a European Court Judgement, the Judge said: “journalists are liable to be inhibited from reporting on matters of general public interest – such as suspected irregularities in the award of public contracts to commercial entities – if they run the risk, as one of the standard sanctions imposable for unjustified attacks on the reputation of private individuals, of being sentenced to imprisonment or to a prohibition on the exercise of their professions”.
The same European Court also said that the chilling effect that the fear of such sanctions has on the exercise of journalistic freedom of expression is evident.
In its considerations, the Court noted that authors Harris, O’ Boyle and Warwick in their book titled ‘Law of the European Convention on Human Rights’ wrote that “the press must not abuse its freedom of expression in order to make gratuitous personal attacks”.
She again quoted from Harris, O’Boyle and Warwick, who said “indeed the Court has stressed that the infliction of any criminal sanction, albeit minor in nature, may entail a chilling effect. What matters is not the gravity of the penalty inflicted on journalists, but the very fact that they are convicted”. They also said that “the imposition of a prison sentence for a press offence will be compatible with journalists’ freedom of expression... only in exceptional circumstances, notably where other fundamental rights have not been seriously impaired, as in the case of hate speech or incitement to violence”.
The Court felt that the penalty inflicted on the journalist was not proportionate or reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
The court said that the journalist could have been more rigorous in his investigation, however the court believes that this argument prevails in the civil court, where proportionate sanctions could be issued.