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Overturned: the Court of Appeal rules that a blogger defamed a journalist

The Court of Appeal overturned a 2021 court ruling which dismissed a defamation claim brought by MaltaToday columnist Raphael Vassallo against blogger Manuel Delia.

Vassallo continued a blog post in which Delia suggested the MaltaToday columnist was “part of the mafia plot that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia”.

The appeal judgment was delivered this morning by Judge Lawrence Mintoff, President of the Court of Appeal. Vassallo was awarded €1,000 in damages.

In the impugned judgement, magistrate Rachel Montebello ruled that Delia had the right to express her belief that Daphne Caruana Galizia had been killed by a criminal organization that lives in the dark and is implicitly aided by anyone, including journalists, who propagate the opinion that she was only killed by the three people who planted the bomb in her car.

Vassallo had appealed, his lawyers claiming that the magistrate had failed to examine the evidence in the required detail and had made factual and legal assessments that were “entirely erroneous, in addition to making an unbalanced assessment of the facts set out by the parties and misinterpreted”. certain legal aspects of the application.

The lawyers insisted that the first court had made “two serious errors” in applying the principles drawn from certain case law.

The magistrate had not taken into consideration the typical reader of this type of blog and had instead interpreted it as a legal professional would. The first court also failed to take into account the typical consumer of social media and this type of blog, who would not necessarily understand or analyze the content in the same way as a newspaper audience would. traditional, the lawyers argued, adding that social media and blog readers tended to rely on the first interpretation that came to mind.

The fact that for the trial court, the allegation that Vassallo was part of a “mafia conspiracy” had to be interpreted metaphorically, showed that the court had a predetermined opinion of what the ordinary reader would understand, what he had then imposed, the lawyers said.

The judge said he disagreed with the argument made by Delia’s lawyer, who had argued that the judge was invited to interfere with the discretion exercised by the lower court. While recalling that this was the general principle followed by the courts, the judge specified that “interference by the court of appeal is always necessary in cases where serious and compelling reasons may cause harm to one of the parties. Therefore, this court cannot so easily dismiss its appellate functions and must first find out whether such reasons exist.

The judge disagreed with the lower court’s retention of fair comment and honest opinion, and said the right to express an opinion on matters of public interest, such as the assassination of Caruana Galizia, was of fundamental importance for the rule of law and the fundamental principle of freedom of expression. “Here, this court also disagrees…it is precisely in light of the fact that cases like these are ultimately intended to protect the right to free speech of anyone who comments or gives an opinion. opinion, that is, both parties, but always… in a fair way. and honest while preserving the rights of third parties”.

“Here, the first court should have taken into account what it had itself recognized, that is to say the stature of the author in relation to the reader and the power of his words, as it is well explained in the appellant’s testimony, which give a certain force and conviction to his writings.
The judge said he accepted that Vassallo, given the context of the atmosphere at the time the blog post was written, might have been afraid of some form of revenge.

“The court cannot rule out the fact that [Delia’s] actions had been well thought out, the effects of which could lead to the suppression of free speech, which ironically was precisely what the impugned article claimed was threatened,” the judge noted.

The court therefore ordered Delia to pay Vassallo the sum of €1,000 in moral damages, also ordering that the legal costs at first instance and on appeal be borne by Delia.

Lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo represented Raphael Vassallo in the proceedings.