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Azzopardi says government is against preemptive action to protect journalists

Jason Azzopardi says environment minister Jose’ Herrera prefers hot air to concrete action to protect journalists 

Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi

Environment minister Jose’ Herrera does not want SLAPP threats against Maltese journalists to be a matter of public policy, opposition MP Jason Azzopardi said.

Speaking to The Shift News, Azzopardi – who has presented a Private Member’s Bill which seeks to prohibit the execution in Malta of any judgement won abroad, based on anti-SLAPP lawsuit – said Herrera “prefers pathetically coloured pedestrian crossings to commemorate civil liberties rather than agreeing to protect the most basic of civil liberties: freedom of the press.”

He was reacting to an article penned by Herrera on Saturday’s Times of Malta in which the minister said anti-SLAPP legislation “is not the optimum solution to a very complex issue” adding that such legislation would give vent to serious legal repercussions from a private international law perspective.

While saying that he fully concurs “with the arguments raised that indiscriminate selection of foreign jurisdictions for the main scope of gagging the free press in Malta is unacceptable,” Herrera argued that there is no need for anti-SLAPP legislation.

“There already exists legislation which deters to a certain degree the attainment of foreign judgments in a vexatious manner,” Herrera wrote.

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

But Azzopardi slammed the article as a “red herring” and said Herrera, “writing on behalf of the Panama Gang” in Castille, is against “meaningful and effective preemptive action in favour of our media.”

“Herrera does not consider as serious and urgent a $40 million lawsuit filed surreptitiously against a Maltese journalist in Arizona by Pilatus Bank. He prefers hot air to concrete action,” Azzopardi said.

A SLAPP lawsuit was filed by Malta-based Pilatus Bank in Arizona, US, against journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was assassinated on 16 October 2017.

In his article, Herrera said most countries have been struggling with libel tourism but have so far failed to come up with a concrete solution. “As things stand today, direct anti-SLAPP legislation would run counter to European law,” Herrera wrote.

However, Azzopardi said the minister “disingenuously” avoided making reference to Brussels I – a set of the rules which courts of European Union Member States use to determine if they have jurisdiction in cases with links to more than one country in the European Union.

“Given that Brussels I states that the recognition of a judgement can be refused ‘if such recognition is manifestly contrary to public policy in the Member State addressed’ why does Herrera disingenuously avoid mentioning this? Why is Government averse to declare as being against public policy on any such threats to our media intended to financially ruin them?” Azzopardi asked.

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.

The European Commission is also looking into new legislation after MEPs from six political parties sent him a letter last month demanding an EU anti-SLAPP Directive which would allow journalists to request the expedient dismissal of lawsuits designed to silence them.

The MEPs also urged the European Commission to fine companies which make use of such practices in jurisdictions outside the EU and called for the creation of a fund supporting journalists “that choose to resist malicious attempts to silence them and to assist in the recovery of funds due to them.”

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