Content Regulation / Censorship, Defamation / Reputation, Political Expression
The Case of Sarawak Report and Malaysia Insider
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Maltese Court of Appeals upheld a lower court finding that an article published by an independent columnist and blogger defamed a prominent politician. Daphne Caruana Galizia published a piece in which she alleged that Manuel Cuschieri, dubbed “Mr. Evil” therein, was deliberately fostering hatred and suspicion; Cuschieri sued Galizia for defamation. The Court ruled that Galizia’s defense of the piece as a fair public comment only applied to statements that are true and that she could have engaged in criticism without resorting to “insult and character assassination.”
Columbia Global Freedom of Expression could not identify official legal and government records on the case and information on the case was derived from secondary sources. It must be noted that media outlets may not provide complete information about this case. Additional information regarding this legal matter will be updated as an official source becomes available.
In 1999, Ms. Caruana Galizia wrote an article in which she claimed that Manuel Cuschieri followed a “hate creed,” had a “seditious agenda,” and was “deliberately watering the seeds of ignorance, hatred and suspicion, bringing them to full flowering.” In this article, Caruana Galizia also referred to Cuschieri, then the President of the Labour Party and host of a radio broadcast on the Party’s channel, as “Mr. Evil” and remarked that his radio program was stylistically similar to those of antisemites historically.
Cuschieri filed a lawsuit against Caruana Galizia, claiming that she had engaged in character assassination and was guilty of defamation. Caruana Galizia, in her defense, claimed that the article was protected as fair comment because the statements therein were true and relevant to public discourse. Caruana Galizia also argued that she had the right to pass value judgment on Cuschieri, even if her opinions “shock, offend and confuse those who read them.”
In the first court, Judge J.R. Micallef reasoned that the facts in Ms. Caruana Galizia’s article were not only incorrect but impugned the reputation of Cuschieri; he therefore ordered Caruana Galizia to pay €950 in damages.
The Court of Appeals ultimately agreed with the first court, though in its ruling focused on the accusations of sedition and racial hatred rather than on Caruana Galizia’s other opinions. Caruana Galizia was able to prove through witness testimony that Cuschieri’s style bore resemblance to antisemites, as he was shown to have often fostered “hatred, or at least contempt of particular persons” through the use of “disloyal tactics such as false suggestions.” Caruana Galizia further testified that her use of the term “sedition” was not meant to suggest that Cuschieri was guilty of inciting revolt. Article 73 of the Malta Criminal Code describes seditious libel as unlawful assembly intended to “excite hatred or contempt” towards the Government and/or senior officials in power. The court reasoned that the article was defamatory because Cuschieri had not committed sedition under the technical definition and that therefore Ms. Caruana Galizia had applied a “false attribution of criminal acts” to Cuschieri.
The Court’s contradictory approach in this case is evident in the way it considers the racial hatred and “seditious agenda” arguments. The Court was careful to point out that Ms. Caruana Galizia did not actually make the claim that Cuschieri was antisemitic, but merely that the style of his program was similar to notable anti-semites in the past. However, the Court took an opposite approach when examining the “seditious agenda” argument; its ruling indicated that the use of the word “sedition” (or any variant thereof) was tantamount to accusing someone of a crime. Given Cuschieri’s style, a plain reading of the claim that Cuschieri has a “seditious agenda” need not imply that he was guilty of sedition per se, but rather is a value judgment (as Caruana Galizia argued) used to characterize his intent.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The press acts as a check on political figures by providing the people with knowledge that they otherwise may not be privy to. This case may cause journalists, bloggers, and the press to avoid controversial, but necessary pieces that concern political figures in fear of legal retaliation. The reliance by the Court of Appeals in this case on technical and legal definitions rather than a plain reading in cases of defamation signals a willingness to interpret such assertions rather broadly, likely at the expense of press freedom.
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