Former Maltese envoy to Libya Neville Gafa has just won a court case which could have implications on how comments on social media are legally interpreted as threats.
Magistrate Charmaine Galea ruled in favour of Gafa today, dismissing an argument by the police that he had threatened Italian journalist Nello Scavo.
Back in June, Gafa and Scavo got into a tiff on Twitter in the comments of a tweet posted by Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
After Alarm Phone criticised the EU for encouraging the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrants who depart from its shores, Gafa stepped in to say:
“You better stop your dirty business. Full support to the Libyan Coastguard.”
Scavo jumped in and commented: “Dirty business, dirty oil, dirty agreements by governments, anything to say about this dirty ways?”
Gafa retorted with: “Stop your dirty business. If not, we will be stopping you.”
Scavo asked Gafa who he was referring to when he said ‘we’, but didn’t get a response.
After receiving a report from a third party, the Maltese police reached out to Scavo a month later to ask if he wanted to file a complaint. Scavo responded in the affirmative and police filed charges against the former envoy.
Magistrate Galea noted that the police could have pressed charges of their own accord, without having to wait for Scavo to file a complaint.
In his testimony, the Italian journalist said he felt threatened by Gafa’s tweet and confirmed the Italian police have been offering him protection since October 2019. However, he didn’t personally file a report with either the Maltese or Italian police.
Meanwhile, Gafa told his interrogators that his tweet wasn’t intended as a threat to Scavo but as a political comment about Malta’s intentions to stop illegal migration. The words ‘dirty business’ were meant as a reference to Alarm Phone’s operations and not to Scavo.
Weighing out whether this tweet was a threat or not, magistrate Galea argued that the police failed to prove how exactly Gafa intended to harm Scavo and that Scavo failed to explain exactly how he felt threatened by this tweet.
In fact, she said she wasn’t convinced Scavo actually did feel threatened.
“From experience, the court has learned that when one feels threatened, particularly a journalist who is protected by the Italian police, they will immediately report the person and not react just because someone asks them to.”
The magistrate’s ruling included some commentary about free speech.
“It is thanks to journalists that stories about discrimination, corruption and misuse of power come to light, and journalists must be allowed to work without fear or threats. However, while the court believes that free expression is a fundamental and sacrosanct right, it might be respected by everyone.”
“If one chooses to express themselves, they must be ready to accept that others will also express themselves according to their convictions, so long as their comments don’t constitute a crime.”
Charges against Gafa, who was defended by lawyer Edward Gatt, were therefore dropped.
Malta’s judicial system has been under the microscope in recent weeks for its interpretation of the law when drawing a line between free speech and hate speech, threats and defamation.
Recently, actress Pia Zammit lost a libel suit she instituted against It-Torċa after the newspaper published old photos of her wearing a Nazi costume. Zammit said the newspaper tried to portray her as a Nazi as retaliation for her activism with the group Occupy Justice, but magistrate Rachel Montebello disagreed with this assessment and ruled the newspaper didn’t seriously harm the actress’ reputation.