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22.02.2017

Malta: “One-woman WikiLeaks” prevails in libel lawsuit by controversial local developer

by Ana Ribeiro

A Malta magistrate has dismissed a libel lawsuit against blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia. The judge argued that her June 2015 post linking a suspected drug operation to a local entrepreneur was in the public’s interest, and based on evidence rather than defamatory.

Chess game cover The blogger is becoming increasingly known - and persecuted - for her reporting on the powerful in Malta. Photo: public domain

Both the Times of Malta and Malta Today reported on the ruling by Magistrate Francesco Depasquale on 20 February. Caruana Galizia is a local celebrity of sorts, and is starting to become known internationally as well for her inflammatory blog posts regarding those in power.

Reporting on illegal dealings

The plaintiff in the libel case was local developer and entrepreneur Mark Gaffarena. Its subject was a post published on the journalist’s Running Commentary blog on 12 June 2015, titled “Sleaze: Antoine 'Cavett' Azzopardi is a drug dealer and allowed to run that illegal 'restaurant operation’”. In it, she wrote that Azzopardi was “probably” running an illegal restaurant in the Tal-Handaq area as a drug front on property owned by Gaffarena, who may or may not be a partner in the operation.     

Magistrate Depasquale ruled that there were enough precedents to warrant publishing the blog post. These included Azzopardi being a known drug dealer and Gaffarena having been implicated in a property-related corruption scandal that caused a Malta minister to resign.

Caruana Galizia has written that this property, transferred by local politicians to Gaffarena, is the same one involved in the case. She has simply continued reporting on the matter.

Galizia Politico Daphne Caruana Galizia was ranked 26 in Politico.eu's list of up-and-coming personalities, behind Serbian activist Jelena Milic. Screenshot from Politico.eu

According to the local press, the judge also remarked that Azzopardi’s restaurant neither having the proper permits nor paying rent – while being allowed to stay open by Gaffarena – is a matter of public interest in itself, considering the Maltan authorities’ failure to curb such multiplying instances.

Using libel laws for oppression

Last year, Politico.eu named Caruana Galizia one of 28 “people most likely to shape our world in 2017”, referring to her as “a one-woman WikiLeaks, crusading against untransparency and corruption in Malta, an island nation famous for both”. Her relentless reporting has earned her many admirers and also detractors, including a Facebook fan page and a blog cataloguing her “insults”.

Despite the libel suit’s dismissal on 20 February, troubles continue for Caruana Galizia as politicians persecute her. Earlier this month, Malta’s finance minister and his EU policy officer ordered that her assets be frozen and filed four civil lawsuits against her, over a post accusing them of misconduct while on official business to Germany. A crowdfunding campaign apparently met the amount needed to stave off the order.

Caruana Galizia has been outspoken about the case on her blog:

When the precautionary warrant is filed by a politician against a journalist who holds him to scrutiny, the implications for democracy and for the freedom of the press are terrible. The system as it stands is ripe for abuse by politicians who try to silence the journalists who expose them, so that their wrong-doing is not exposed.”

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and Institute of Maltese Journalists publicly condemned the minister’s actions against the journalist as disproportionate and dangerous for media freedom. The EFJ submitted the case to the Council of Europe’s Platform for the Protection of Journalism, which is now monitoring its developments.   

Meanwhile, new legislation currently being proposed in Malta could double fines for media workers in defamation cases and further limit the protection of sources.

On Caruana Galizia’s ordeal, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović has stated:

“Initiating libel lawsuits for the work of journalists can very quickly chill free public discourse in any society […] In addition, the very unusual move to freeze significant financial assets of Caruana Galizia already depicts her as guilty. Freedom of expression cannot stop at views deemed appropriate by those in power.”

Malta ranked 46 our of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index - far ahead nearby Italy (77) and Greece (89).






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