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(Credit: Malta Today, screenshot)

A Malta court ruled that MaltaToday libeled a lawyer in three Jan. 22, 2006 articles, according to the Malta Independent Online.  MaltaToday has to pay the lawyer, Peter Fenech, €18,000.

Malta Today is a local newspaper based in San Gwann, Malta, according to Mondo Times.

The articles, “As Government waives Lm100,000 bill Peter Fenech claims” and “Mutiny because of a Bounty” both were still on MaltaToday‘s website as of July 12.  The first was a news report by MaltaToday‘s James Debano, and the second, “Mutiny because of a Bounty,” was … by the newspaper’s managing editor Saviour Balzan.  Fenech filed separate suits against each article. MaltaToday‘s editor Matthew Vella told iMediaEThics that Fenech filed “three libel suits against three different stories,” explaining the third was a “quote of the week.”

MaltaToday‘s articles claimed that the company Fenech directed, VAB Co. Ltd, didn’t “pay rent on a government-owned property” and that the prime minister “waived” that debt.

But, as the Times of Malta explained, Fenech denied the claims in the articles and added that he “was not the owner of the company,” had “no shareholding,” and didn’t have any debt with the government.

The Malta judge found that the MaltaToday articles were “bad journalism,” according to the Times of Malta.

MaltaToday’s Vella said to iMediaEthics that the newspaper does intend to appeal the case, which lasted so long because “Maltese courts are notorious for their delays, and postponements of cases due to non-presence of defendants and plaintiffs.”

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MaltaToday‘s report on the case focused not on the libel, but on whether or not Fenech, “a politically appointed chairman of the government-owned Mediterranean Conference Centre, ” is considered a public figure.  According to MaltaToday‘s report, the judge found Fenech “is a public official in his capacity as lawyer,” but not a public official on his own.

MaltaToday added that Fenech “refused” an interview with MaltaToday prior to publication and that the judge claimed MaltaToday “intentionally” erred in its report to libel Fenech.

MaltaToday quoted its managing editor Balzan as saying the fines are “disproportionate” and that the case “is an attempt to silence the free press and more so the sentence manifestly ignores the facts as proven. This is a bad decision and ironically comes at a time when politicians from both sides of the House are calling for stiffer penalties on libel cases.”

The newspaper’s Vella added to iMediaEthics that the newspaper has “relaunched its libel fund” and quoted the newspaper’s managing editor Balzan as defending the articles in question as “justified in reporting.”  Balzan also is quoted in Vella’s email to iMediaEthics as saying that “I have no doubt that if we do not fight these decisions, the future of the press as we know it is over.”

He also provided this July 12 story from the newspaper about the case

We have written to Fenech asking more information about the third libel case and will update with any response.

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MaltaToday Fined for Libel, Plans to Appeal

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