After reading Magistrate’s Rachelle Montebello’s sentence on Pia Zammit vs It-Torċa, I have some remarks to make.
The Court found It-Torċa’s editor, Victor Vella, not guilty of libel for a front-page story implying that Pia Żammit, an actress, was a Nazi sympathiser. The implication was made with a picture of her wearing a Nazi-uniform on the front-page of the newspaper and an ensuing article complaining that the actress was making a light-hearted and funny gesture with a Nazi-uniform without mentioning the fact that the actress was wearing the uniform specifically for a play.
Basically, what the magistrate concluded was that the newspaper made a legitimate value-judgement instead of publishing an explicit defamatory statement which is conveyed as a state of fact.
Now, the magistrate may have some very good reasons why the Media and Defamation Act may have not been able to provide the tools for a guilty judgement. The judgment may also be advantageous to the press in general. After all, the advantages of having a liberal-libel regime greatly offsets the disadvantages of having a tight-legal regime which can easily find its defendants guilty. So, in actual fact, and admittedly, the magistrate may have, unwittingly, made a favour to the media in general.
However, there are problems with the magistrate’s sentence and I would not have interpreted the case like her. The judge considered It-Torċa’s piece as a value-judgment and an honest opinion in contrast to a state of fact. The problem with this distinction here is that It-Torċa had clearly implied, even explicitly I would say, despite the editor’s acrobatic manner of delivering it, that the author is a Nazi. Therefore, the newspaper tried to sell the fact that the actress is a Nazi. After all, it is also a state of fact that It-Torċa made reference to an actress as a Nazi without alluding to her acting role. And surely, this was not an honest opinion given that the author knew very well that the actress was wearing the Nazi-uniform for a play, while deliberately not mentioning this fact. It is a deceitful opinion with the intention to deceive and libel on misconstrued facts. I can make many value-judgements which can be relative to the case of affairs, context, philosophies and ideas too. Back in my university-days, when I published the fictional-story, “Li Tkisser Sewwi”, the Nationalists were accusing me and the author of promoting pedophilia. We didn’t sue. We told them to fuck off, but you get my point.
One may debate the distinction between values and facts, but value-free judgments are also hard to come by, and values may be attributable to state of facts with clear implications. The value of being a Nazi comes with a proven and commonly-known criteria of beliefs which have direct and real impacts on society. But, and maybe, the problem here is neither with the law nor with the magistrate, but the entity which is abusing the law’s emphasis on objectivity by circumventing it with not so much ambiguous implications. It’s like stealth libel or what is recently called “fake news”.
The context of the medium should also be considered. It-Torċa is not a newspaper or journal: it is PR-machine for the bad elements of government masquerading as the General Workers’ Union’s independent newspaper. It’s more of a cesspit of fascist diatribes and authoritarian threats than a newspaper. Apart from defending on a consistent basis corrupt government ministers, It-Torċa has, also, on a consistent basis, defamed and libeled artists, journalists and activists in the most vindictive manner possible and many of these people aren’t even public persons. To add insult to injury, It-Torċa, is fully subsidised by the government. Government bank-rolled the Union in 2013 by renting its premises in Paola while the Union supports its press with its resources and personnel. Add up the government-sponsored adverts and you end up with a PR machine which is fully-subsidised by the government.
I write this with sadness, of course, because I had a very good relationship with Union Press. I used to sell my stuff to It-Torċa during my years as a free-lance writer. I was also a regular client at their printing press and also brought them many other clients. I was good money for them and I used to be happy with that knowing I am supporting a workers’ press. All of this changed when Labour entered office in 2013 and editors, Union officials, and people like me who actually brought value at the Union and its press moved on to government-jobs. We were not replaced with younger stalwarts, (Sandro Mangion made a brief stint and left soon after), but with Labour Party and government cronies without any values and principles who were ready to publish anything they were fed. Victor Vella, the current editor is one of these mercenaries. He is the kind of person who will prostrate in front of the powerful-all-to-be because that’s the only thing he knows. At L-Orizzont, Josef Caruana had already degenerated into a fascist-punk bullying other journalists for covering government-corruption. I don’t think the Union Press will change its ways either because its editors today don’t know any better and Union leaders also don’t have the will to use their means of communication in the interests of their members and workers in general. Artists, journalists and writers have always been associated with workers in their daily-economic struggles and the Union should strive to fight for their interests too.
It always better to err on the side of caution, so once again the magistrate may have done the media a favour by delivering this verdict. On the other hand, I’m also convinced the law does provide the necessary tools to define the matter of this case as libelous. It is an untruth to describe an artist as the character he or she is trying to portray. Imagine an author writing a first-person fictional account of a guy who kills the Prime Minister. In his role as servant to the ultimate master, Victor Vella would probably launch a tirade on how an author is planning to kill the Prime Minister. Is that libelous? Maybe not. Is taking the artist’s work literally and implying it as a state of fact libelous? Is a man a pedophile for playing the act of a pedophile in a play? I think that may be more libelous than not.