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Maltese Actress Appeals Court’s ‘Robotic’ Judgment On Nazi Smear As She Argues It-Torċa Just Wanted To Hurt Her

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Actress and Occupy Justice activist Pia Zammit has appealed a sentence ruling a newspaper’s articles about her in Nazi costume were not defamatory, in a case which could have implications on the way the new press law is interpreted in court.

In her appeal, Zammit argued that It-Torċa editor Victor Vella had ‘malicious intent’ when he published two articles about a photo of her wearing a Nazi costume that was taken backstage during a 2009 performance of the wartime comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo.

“With all due respect, the First Court shouldn’t have acted like a robot which seemed incapable of understanding the subtle manner in which false logic was used,” Zammit’s lawyer Joseph Zammit Maempel wrote in a reference to magistrate Rachel Montebello’s judgement.

“It should have been frank and called out this perversity for what it was. Right to freedom of expression doesn’t include the right to twist the truth, turn the facts upside down and out of their context and use them as a weapon to attack people.”

“Justice requires the truth to be recognised and confirmed and, above all, for perversion and absurdity to be sidelined. If it doesn’t happen, then the very goal of libel laws will be lost and there can never be justice.”

What is the crux of Zammit’s argument?

The photo at the centre of this case

The photo at the centre of this case

Enacted in 2018, the Media and Defamation law has elevated the threshold for people to win defamation damages – from content that could harm someone’s reputation to content that could seriously harm it.

The law also states that publications aren’t privileged from legal protection if it is shown they are made with malice.

Zammit is arguing that It-Torċa’s articles were malicious, using an old photo completely out of context to tarnish her as a Nazi as political retaliation for her activism with Occupy Justice, a pressure group set up to campaign for justice for assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia which is often critical of the government.

“Being identified or assimilated with Nazism is undoubtedly the apex of defamation, and therefore qualifies as serious harm to someone’s reputation as obliged by the new Press Law,” she said.

These are her arguments:

1. The way Vella’s question was phrased.

A few days before the story went to print, Vella sent the photo to Occupy Justice, along with this question:

“Do you think this message conforms with Occupy Justice’s message? I’d appreciate a response.”

Zammit argued that this showed Vella was aware the photo had a ‘message’, and this message was essentially that she endorses or sympathises with Nazism, which goes against Occupy Justice’s beliefs.

If Vella believed this photo conveyed this message in and of itself, then the very publication of this photo would have conveyed that message to his readers – It-Torċa published it four times over two articles, including twice on its front page.

Magistrate Rachel Montebello

Magistrate Rachel Montebello

2. The way It-Torċa’s first title and article were phrased.

It-Torċa’s first article placed the photo on its front page with the title ‘Controversial Photo… Pia Zammit Explains’ and the article later on in the paper with an expanded title: ‘Controversial photo… Pia Zammit Explains That This Was Taken Backstage’.

Zammit argued that the photo could only be seen as controversial if taken out of its original context, which she had explained to Vella before the story went to print. 

“The editor’s intention was to attack and intimidate Pia Zammit by associating her with a despicable and horrendous ideology,” she argued. 

The fact that Zammit was an actress and that the photo was taken backstage during a dress rehearsal 11 years ago wasn’t mentioned on the front page or in the introduction of the article. Zammit herself is referred to as an Occupy Justice activist, and not as an actress.

3. The reaction the first article provoked.

After It-Torċa published its first article, Zammit was hit by a number of critical comments which said she should be ashamed for being a Nazi sympathiser and accused her of hypocrisy in her role as Occupy Justice activist. 

Moreover, a week after the first story was published, It-Torċa published a second front-page story which quoted an anonymous educator criticising Zammit on the grounds that the swastika symbolises a destructive ideology and that posing with it can be offensive and insensitive, even if in jest. 

“The educator seems to have absorbed the message conveyed by Vella in his first article,” Zammit argued. 

“According to this educator, the photo was offensive and disgusting. Therefore, [Vella] offended and disgusted his readers two more times by publishing this photo in his second article.”

4. Editor’s resort to ‘twisted’ logic.

Zammit challenged Vella’s argument that he had merely passed a value judgment on facts that were substantially true, ie. the existence of the photo, insisting that he acted with pure malicious intent. 

“Choosing to publish a fact (the photo) but detaching it and isolating it from its original context to lead people to reach another conclusion is nothing but the perversion of the truth and a blatant logical fallacy,” she said.

“Through its publication, It-Torċa followed and promoted the logic that since the swastika is a disgusting symbol and since Pia Zammit was wearing a swastika, then Pia Zammit was doing something disgusting and is a disgusting person by association.”

“This is not true, and the absurdity of this line of logic can never be the basis on which Pia Zammit’s defence rests. The mere fact of her costume couldn’t have led to what the accused is describing as a value judgement based on substantially true facts, but a perverse conclusion which was maliciously designed to smear her and discredit her in the eyes of the general public.”

“For value judgement and fair comment to stand as a defence, it isn’t enough for them to be built on truths but for them to be built on honest opinions and not malicious ones.”

Charlie Chaplin in 'The Great Dictator'

Charlie Chaplin in 'The Great Dictator'

Zammit warned that although magistrate Montebello said her considerations were in favour of free speech, the implications of her ruling will have the counter effect, encouraging actors to self-censor when asked to portray controversial characters on stage.

Indeed, she suggested Charlie Chaplin wouldn’t have famously taken on the role of Adolf Hitler in the famous comedy ‘The Great Dictator’ had he followed It-Torċa’s line of thought, and global culture would be weaker as a result.

“The First Court’s sentence creates an ugly precedent for art in general, because the freedom to attack wrongdoing (like Nazism) through irony and ridicule, some of the most effective artistic methods, has been seriously threatened,” she ended.

Cover photo: Left: Pia Zammit, Right: Victor Vella 

What do you make of Pia Zammit’s arguments?

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