Court grants €5,000 as com­pen­sa­tion to jour­nal­ist who was im­pris­oned

Malta Independent - - NEWS -

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.

Joseph Calleja

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