Defamation remains a criminal offence in Malta.
Defamation (Criminal Code Art. 252): Defined as offending a person “with the object of destroying or damaging” that person’s reputation. The penalty is imprisonment for up to three months or a fine (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.
Art. 256 of the Criminal Code states that defamation committed by means of the media is subject to the terms of the Press Act .
Defamation (Press Act Art. 11): According to this provision, defamatory libel is punished with a fine. However, if a person seeks to prove the truth of the allegation, and cannot do so, a prison sentence of up to six months may be imposed (Press Act Art. 12).
Additionally, according to Criminal Code Art. 339, par. e, 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.
It is also worth noting that Press Act Art. 7 punishes “obscene libel” – i.e., the use of expressions harming “public morals or decency” – with up to three months in prison and/or a fine (multa).
Under Maltese Criminal Code Arts. 255 and 373, and Press Act Art. 31, prosecutions for defamation are generally only at the behest of the offended party.
The Press Act in Art. 32 sets a one-year limitation period for bringing either criminal or civil actions for defamation.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Imputing misconduct to government: 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.
Reviling judges and other public officials: 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
Defamation and insult of the president: 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).
Imputing ulterior motives to the president: 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 Press Act.
Seditious libel: 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.
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Insulting or showing contempt for the Maltese flag is an offence under Art. 5, par. 2 of the Press Act. The punishment is a fine not exceeding €465.87 or imprisonment for up to three months.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign Heads of State
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 intoxication”, that consists of “blasphemous words or expressions” is a contravention under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code. The minimum penalty is a fine (ammenda) of €11.65 and the maximum penalty is three months in prison.
Criminal Defamation and Media
The use of criminal libel laws is relatively common in Malta, including against the media. The following are examples of this usage only.
Malta Independent columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia has been the subject of several criminal libel actions. For example, in 2010, she was fined €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 November 2016, Caruana Galizia was of criminally defaming a former Maltese Labour Party politician in a series of articles that noted the politician’s alleged involvement in a plot to kill a former Libyan prime minister in Egypt in 1984. The court ruled that the allegedly defamatory statements were backed up by strong evidence and were the result of a careful investigation on Caruana Galizia’s part .
In 2012, criminal libel charges were filed 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 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 issued a joint call for the decriminalisation of defamation.
In 2012, Malta’s Olympic Committee chairman Justice Lino Farrugia Sacco brought 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, filed six libel cases over media reports published from 1 to 3 January 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; Alexander 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 acquitted 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. Malta’s criminal obscenity laws were later reformed in 2016.
Recent Legal Changes
Malta repealed its criminal blasphemy provisions in 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.
In February 2017, the Maltese government announced plans to repeal criminal libel . On 17 February 2017 the OSCE RFoM received a letter from the Maltese authorities noting that there were on-going legislative reforms in Malta, including the drafting of an Act on Media and Defamation. An official copy of the bill was shared with the RFoM, and the Government expressed a willingness to follow up with discussions on this subject. On 21 February the RFoM replied to the authorities welcoming that the draft would decriminalise defamation, a step she said that all governments of OSCE participating States should undertake. In the following days, Minister of Justice Owen Bonnici and the RFoM engaged in very positive and direct communications over the next steps of co-operation. At the request of the Minister, the RFoM commissioned a review of the draft Media and Defamation Act, forwarded to the authorities on 28 February 2017. On 1 March the RFoM issued a public statement commenting on the legal review, welcoming several provisions of the draft law, which, if adopted, would offer increased protection for journalistic work and pointed to certain elements in the draft law that need further improvement . If passed, the Media and Defamation Act would replace the current Press Act.
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information for Malta was originally collected by IPI as part of the “Out of Balance” report, published in January 2015 with support from the European Commission and incorporating research contributed by Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and by the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. This entry was later expanded and updated by IPI as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
A fully footnoted version of this entry is available in the OSCE study. This entry was last updated in March 2017.
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 info(at)ipi.media.