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Labour non-committal on anti-SLAPP bill

Labour deputy leader Chris Fearne refuses to say whether government will back the Opposition’s proposed law seeking to protect journalists from crippling international lawsuits

Labour deputy leader Chris Fearne

Labour has not committed itself to supporting the Private Member’s Bill presented in Parliament last week to prohibit expensive international lawsuits against Maltese journalists.

Instead, deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne told The Shift that “the Labour Party will be analysing [MP Jason] Azzopardi Private Member’s Bill from a legal point of view.”

The Private Member’s Bill presented by Nationalist Party MP Jason Azzopardi aims to protect media organisations from such threats by giving Maltese courts “exclusive” jurisdiction over any Maltese publications “irrespective of whether the publication in question is hosted or otherwise broadcast from servers located outside Malta.”

Fearne said the new Media and Defamation Bill “will not permit the use of SLAPP procedures in Maltese law courts” but did not commit himself on whether Maltese journalists will be protected from lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions.

Partit Demokratiku, which has two MPs, has said that it will back the bill. In Europe, MEPs have called for legislation that would curtail abusive legal SLAPP practices. A group of MEPs from various political families called on the European Commission to take note of the recent report made by Mapping Media Freedom with regard to SLAPP practices against The Shift.

SLAPP lawsuits are intended to intimidate and silence investigative journalists and independent media by burdening them with exorbitant legal expenses until they abandon their stance as a result of the threat of financially crippling lawsuits abroad.

Media organisations in Malta have been threatened by SLAPP lawsuits by Pilatus Bank, leading to the removal of articles on the company. Henley and Partners have also threatened The Shift with legal action in the US and the UK in an attempt to get an article on the company removed. The Shift has refused to remove the article and has published the threat received.

Labour’s deputy leader for parliamentary affairs added that other amendments, “including the abolition of criminal libel, are also being implemented, with the ultimate aim of having a stronger media.”

Yet, the same spirit of the new media law should apply to vexatious threats made through SLAPP.

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