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UPDATED | Jason Azzopardi challenges government on anti-SLAPP bill

MP says Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri were aware of legal threats before they were issued by Henley and Partners and Pilatus Bank against Maltese journalists

Jason Azzopardi

Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi tonight asked whether the Prime Minister’s office, Henley and Partners and Pilatus Bank are “three fingers of a bigger hidden hand.”

The MP said Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri were aware of legal threats before they were issued by Henley and Partners and Pilatus Bank against Maltese journalists and in private email conversations had plotted to cripple Maltese people financially.

Speaking in Parliament, Azzopardi said government is showing a lack of conviction in defending Maltese journalists from crippling international lawsuits, better known as SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation).

Id-diskors tieghi lbierah fejn fih urejt li l-Bank Pilatus, bil-komplicita ta’ OPM, hedded lil gurnalisti Maltin b’kawza ghal danni ta’ $40 MILJUN. Min huma t-tradituri tal-Maltin?

Posted by Jason Azzopardi on Dienstag, 6. Februar 2018

Accusing government of double standards when it comes to defending Maltese journalists, Azzopardi said “there is no better civil liberty than the freedom of the press to investigate freely.”

Last month Azzopardi presented a Private Member’s Bill which seeks to prohibit the execution in Malta of any judgement won abroad, based on anti-SLAPP lawsuit. Azzopardi said that his initiative was backed by the Malta Information Technology Law Association (MITLA) which said that “a Maltese solution protecting against SLAPP and Libel Tourism is not only required, but legally possible.”

However, government has not committed itself to back the bill, instead saying that it is in the process of evaluating the legal aspects of such a proposal.

Highlighting the links between Pilatus Bank and Henley and partners, who have both threatened Maltese media organisations with legal action in the US and the UK, Azzopardi said murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had revealed emails in which Henley and Partners and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri “colluded” to sue the journalist and Azzopardi himself.

Pilatus did sue Caruana Galizia Pilatus for defamation in an American court. The lawsuit was filed at the time the journalist had alleged that the private bank had processed a $1 million transfer from a Dubai company to the wife of the Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat, at the behest of the daughter of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev.

The allegations saw the Prime Minister call early elections and a magisterial inquiry over allegations that Muscat’s wife was the beneficial owner of Egrant Inc, a secret offshore company revealed a year earlier in the Panama Papers is still underway.

Azzopardi said that the law firm Schillings of London –  used by minister Konrad Mizzi prior to the publication of the Panama Papers which among others revealed that both Mizzi and Schembri held offshore companies in the secretive tax haven-  and the Lawrence Law Group, a US law firm which had filed the case against Caruana Galizia had each written to various media houses on behalf of Pilatus Bank.

He said the letters, sent on 16 October, 2017, were to notify them of litigation beginning before UK and US courts. The Lawrence Law Group acting for Pilatus said that in the Arizona lawsuit they filed the bank was estimating the damages sought to be in excess of $40 million and warned that litigation had already commenced.

“So the government priding itself to be the champion of civil liberties colludes with foreigners to lead Maltese to financial ruin by suing them for $40 million,” Azzopardi said.

Quoting Caruana Galizia’s article published in June 2016 on the Malta Independent, Azzopardi also highlighted the friendship between Henley’s Group Chairman Christian Kälin and Pilatus’ chairman Seyed Ali Sadr Hasheminejad, with the latter being invited to Kälin’s 20th wedding anniversary celebrations in Switzerland.

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 – the company awarded a multi million-euro contract to act as agents of Malta’s cash-for-citizenship scheme –  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.

Azzopardi praised The Shift for “standing their ground” and not succumbing to the the legal threats issued by Henley and Partners.

“Freedom of the press in in the interests of the governed, not of the governor,” Azzopardi said, adding that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has not faced the media in a long time. “Everything is stage managed and orchestrated to allow the Prime Minister to escape from an emergency exit each time he is faced with journalists.”

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