Defamation remains a criminal offence in Malta.
Defamation, defined as offending a person “with the object of destroying or damaging” that person’s reputation, is a criminal offence under Art. 252 of the Maltese Criminal Code. The punishment is imprisonment for up to three months or a (multa). However, when the defamatory content is “divulged or exhibited to the public” the maximum punishment increases to one year in prison. Defamation consisting of “vague expressions or indeterminate reproaches, or in words or acts which are merely indecent” is punishable only as a contravention, i.e., a civil infraction
Art. 11 of the Press Act states that defamatory libel is punished with a fine. However, if a person seeks to prove the of the allegation, and cannot do so, a prison sentence of up to six months may be imposed (Art. 12).
Finally, according to Art. 339, par. e of the Criminal Code, any person who “utters insults or threats not otherwise provided for in this Code, or being provoked, carries his insult beyond the limit warranted by his provocation” is guilty of a contravention.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Provisions on the books.
Anyone who, in a public speech or in comments at a public meeting, imputes misconduct to a person employed or concerned in administrating Malta’s government is guilty of a criminal offence under Art. 75 of the Maltese Criminal Code and faces up to one year in prison or a fine.
Criminal Code Art. 93 punishes “reviling” or threatening a judge, the attorney general, or a magistrate or juror with a prison sentence of nine to 18 months and a fine of €500 to €1,500. However, someone who seeks to “damage or diminish” the reputation of one of those people faces 12 months to two years in prison and a fine of €700 to €2,500. Art. 95 similarly punishes vilification of other public officials.
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Provisions on the books.
Under Art. 72 of the Maltese Criminal Code, “whosoever shall use any defamatory, insulting, or disparaging words, acts or gestures in contempt [of the President] or shall censure or disrespectfully mention or represent [the President] by words, signs, or visible representations” faces up to three months in prison or a fine (multa).
In addition, whoever “shall impute ulterior motives [to the President of Malta] … or shall insult, revile, or bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection” against him or her via print or broadcast faces up to three months in prison or a fine of up to €465.87 under Art. 5 of the .
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Provisions on the books.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
Art. 255 of the Maltese Criminal Code implies that it is possible for family members to file a claim for defamation when “the offence is committed against the memory of a deceased person”.
Note that uttering an insult, “even though in a state of intoxciation”, that consists of “blasphemous words or expressions” is a contravention under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code. The minimum penalty is a (ammenda) of €11.65 and the maximum penalty is three months in prison.
Other Related Criminal Offences
Unlawful assembly with the intent, via speech or other means, to “excite hatred or contempt” toward the president or the government is an offence under Art. 73 of the Maltese Criminal Code. In addition, Art. 74 punishes conspiracy “to excite hatred or contempt toward the person of the President of Malta or towards the Government of Malta” with between six and 18 months in prison. See also “Criminal Defamation of the Head of State”.
Spreading false news likely to alarm public opinion or disturb public order is a criminal offence under Art. 82 of the Criminal Code and Art. 9 of the Press Act.
The Press Act in Art. 32 sets a one-year limitation period for bringing either criminal or civil actions for defamation.
Statistics on Application
Non-pecuniary damages are capped at €11,646.87 and can only be awarded only if the object of the alleged defamation was to “injure reputation” or if the offender slandered a business in a way likely to harm its activities (Press Act Arts. 28-29).
Punitive damages are not possible.
Media Cases and Case law
In terms of reasonable publication, Maltese courts generally accept a defence of good faith. However, recent case law challenges the strength of this defence.
In 1995, a reporter for the Times of Malta, Sharon Spiteri, attended a court hearing in a bigamy case. On the day of the hearing, the defence attorney did not show up, ostensibly due to a fee dispute with his client. In the “chaotic atmosphere” that ensued, Spiteri heard the presiding judge find the attorney (“Dr. A”) to be in contempt of court. She attempted to verify this afterward with the judge and court recorder, but both already had left. Spiteri did, however, confirm what she had heard with another reporter who had been in the room. On the next day, the Times published an article entitled “Lawyer found in Contempt of Court”. After receiving a complaint from Dr. A as to the article’s veracity, Spiteri went back to check the official court record, which supported Dr. A’s account. The Times published a retraction the next day, but the Dr. A. sued Spiteri and the paper’s editor and publisher for libel.
The attorney representing the trio pleaded good faith, arguing that Spiteri had reported what she honestly thought she had heard and that she had dutifully attempted to verify the information as much as reasonably possible. In addition, the prosecutor in the bigamy case testified that he also thought the judge had held the defence attorney in contempt and that he believed the article to have accurately reflected what transpired in court. The court in Dr. A’s libel case, however, ruled in his favour and awarded damages of 320 mL (€720). The Court of Appeal rejected the appeal in 2003. In 2004, the defendants appealed to the Constitutional Court, which also rejected their defence. The Constitutional Court held that Spiteri should have verified the judge’s remarks with the court records in accordance with journalistic duty.
An appeal was then lodged with the European Court of Human Rights (Aquilina and Others v. Malta, 2011), which found a violation of Article 10. The Court that, given the evidence of witnesses who said they heard Dr. A being held in contempt, Spiteri’s “conclusion from what she had seen and heard” appeared reasonable, despite what the court record contained. Moreover, the Court found “no reason to doubt [Spiteri’s] account that she attempted to verify her perception of what had taken place in the court room [and that] such an action would be entirely in line with best journalistic practices”. It explained: “In the circumstances of the present case, [Spiteri] could not reasonably have been expected to take any further steps, especially since news is a perishable commodity and to delay its publication, even for a short period, may well deprive it of all its value and interest.”
In 2012, a court Sunday Times editor Steve Mallia and journalist Ariadne Massa to pay €11,500 in moral damages to four executive members of the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses (MUMN) over an article in which Massa reported that an unnamed “top MUMN official” was being investigated for corruption. Although neither the article’s factual claims – Massa had relied on an official health ministry report – nor the existence of public interest were in dispute, the court found that by information was defamatory due to the manner in which it was expressed. The court said that it could “almost” conclude that the paper, by describing the nurse as a “top official”, had “colluded” with the health ministry to tarnish the reputations of the four executive members. None of the four members was, in fact, the nurse under investigation. Massa argued that she had acted in good faith; as the nurse in question headed an MUMN subcommittee, she considered him to be a “top official”. The court, however, reportedly ruled that the average reader would understand “top official” to mean a member of the executive committee. An appeal is currently pending before the Court of Appeal.
On the other hand, several recent, key decisions by Malta’s Court of Appeal have underscored that, in the case of “serious and prudent” investigative journalism, public interest outweighs the right to honour, even when errors in reporting are made.
In March 2014, the Court of Appeal a civil libel judgment against a former editor of the newspaper Il-Mument, ruling that serious investigative journalism was protected even if the reporting contained errors. In 2010, a lower court had ordered the editor, Victor Camilleri, to pay €1,700 in damages to a former police commissioner, Lawrence Pullicino, over a 1997 article alleging that Pullicino had received special treatment while serving a 15-year prison sentence for manslaughter, later reduced to seven-and-a-half years. According to the article, Pullicino had been allowed extra phone calls, visits and time outside of his cell. The Court of Appeal ruled that there was enough evidence to support Il-Mument’s conclusion regardless of whether, for example, details such as the reported number of exact calls Pullicino was allowed per day were factually accurate or whether there were other prisoners who may also have received privileged treatment. “From where, and how, the newspaper got the information was not relevant to the case because investigative journalism should always be protected even if there are mistakes in the reporting,” the court’s opinion stated.
In 2012, the Court of Appeal a civil judgment against a journalist accused of libelling a Maltese MP and former government minister, Louis Galea. The case dated to 1997, when Galea sued journalist Joe Mifsud over a book and a subsequent press release in which Mifsud reported that the name of Galea’s brother was found in a diary belonging to an Italian citizen banned by the Maltese authorities due to suspected involvement in drug trafficking. Galea claimed his reputation was unlawfully damaged and a lower court agreed, ordering Mifsud to pay Galea €5,000 in damages. However, the Court of Appeal, quoting ECtHR case law, affirmed that serious and prudent investigative journalism on a matter of public interest outweighed the right to honour, especially for persons in public life, who were expected to accept more criticism than private individuals.
The Court of Appeal’s decision here has been contrasted with a 2004 ruling on a separate libel action over the same material, in that case brought by a lawyer connected to a custody dispute involving one of Galea’s children. The Court that this was a private matter, not one of public interest, and that the printing of the respective allegations therefore was not justified.
Use of criminal libel laws
IPI notes that criminal defamation laws have been invoked against the Maltese press on numerous occasions in recent years. These are selected examples:
In October 2011, Saviour Balzan, managing editor of MediaToday, instituted criminal libel proceedings against Steve Mallia, editor of The Sunday Times, after Mallia in an editorial accused Balzan of using his opinion column to target clients who refused to advertise with MediaToday. (28 October 2011). Balzan later dropped the case after the two reportedly agreed that refraining from attacking one another was in the best interest of their readers and media organisations, and they a joint call for the decriminalisation of defamation.
Malta Independent columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia has been the subject of several criminal libel actions. For example, in 2010, she was €1,165 over a 2003 article critical of then-Labour Party deputy leader Anglu Farrugia. The court reportedly found that Caruana Galizia had practiced “militant journalism” with the intent to harm Farrugia’s reputation.
In 2012, criminal libel charges were against Labour MP Joe Mizzi and the editor of the party’s news programme ONE News, on a complaint by Richard Cachia Caruana, former ambassador to the EU. The charges arose over comments Mizzi made on the programme about allegations that Caruana had pressured Mizzi to have the country’s head of Security Services removed, allegedly for personal reasons.
In 2012, Malta’s Olympic Committee chairman Justice Lino Farrugia Sacco criminal libel charges against Times of Malta editor Ray Bugeja and journalist Christian Peregin after the latter reported about a U.K. Sunday Times article on the sale of Olympics tickets that Farrugia Sacco said falsely implied that he was under investigation for corruption.
In 2013, Lawrence Zammit, the chairman of Malta Enterprise, the national development agency, six libel cases over media reports published from Jan. 1 to 3 that year linking him to a company being investigated in Italy for money laundering. Zammit filed one civil and one criminal defamation suit, each, against Josef Caruana, editor of L-Orizzont; Aleander Balzan, editor of inewsmalta.com; and Alternattiva Demokratika Deputy Chairman Carmel Cacopardo, who made the allegations in a blog post.
In 2011, editor Mark Camilleri and author Alex Vella Gera were of violating Criminal Code Art. 208 (distributing pornographic or obscene material) after publishing a sexually explicit story in student newspaper Realtà. The judge ruled that simply because the piece was shocking and evoked disgust in readers did not mean that it could be qualified as obscene and pornographic.
Recent Legal Changes
Malta repealed its criminal blasphemy provisions in 2016 (Act XXXVII of 2016) . Previously, vilifying or offending the Roman Catholic Church or any object of worship thereof was a criminal offence under Art. 163 of the Maltese Criminal Code. Offenders faced a prison sentence of between one and six months. Under Art. 164, vilifying or offending any other religion “tolerated by law” was punishable by one to three months in prison.
Criminal Code Art. 208, also makes the manufacture, distribution or public display or any obscene “print, painting, photograph, film, book, card or writing, or any other pornographic or obscene article whatsoever” punishable by six to 12 months imprisonment and/or a fine of €1,000 to €3,000.
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information on defamation laws in Europe was collected by the International Press Institute (IPI) in collaboration with the School of Public Policy’s Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and their partners at the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. (Read more about our partners here.)
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at ipi[at]freemedia.at.
Information on Malta was last updated in January 2017.
http://www.justiceservices.gov.mt/DownloadDocument.aspx?app=lom&itemid=8574 – last amended by XXVIII, XLIX and LI of 2016