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After Malta, EU needs anti-SLAPP law to protect media freedom – MEPs

MEPs critical of Maltese government’s stand on abusive law suits filed against journalists

A group of MEPs from across political groups have called on the European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans to propose legislation that will protect journalists before the lapse of the Commission’s self-imposed May deadline.

The MEPs have been campaigning for the introduction of legislation that they argue is “vital to protect media freedom and investigative journalism in the European Union”.

On Monday, the Maltese government voted down a Private Member’s Bill presented by Nationalist Party MP Jason Azzopardi to protect journalists against foreign lawsuits (SLAPP) intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by crippling them financially.

PN MEP David Casa (EPP) said after the Malta vote that EU law was now more urgent as abusive SLAPP lawsuits had “no place in the EU”. His appeal to Timmermans was backed by MEPs from across political groups in a letter sent to Timmermans on Wednesday signed also by Ana Gomes (S&D), Monica Macovei (ECR), Maite Pagazaurtundúa (ALDE), Stelios Kouloglou (GUE) and Benedek Jávor (Greens).

“SLAPP lawsuits have been used in Malta to intimidate investigative journalists and media houses by the now notorious Pilatus Bank as well as Henley & Partners, the concessionaires of citizenship-for-cash scheme. The practice was used against assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia with the complicity of Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and Minister for Justice and Culture Owen Bonnici,” the MEPs said.

The MEPs noted that legislation to protect journalists that was recently proposed in the Maltese parliament was voted down by the government on the basis of it being incompatible with EU law.

“The Maltese government’s complicity in the use of these practices makes the announcement unsurprising albeit disappointing. And while the justification provided for this decision is poor and unconvincing it further highlights the need for EU legislation on this crucial issue,” the MEPs said.

The Maltese government’s stand was criticised by legal experts who said the legal advice the government sought was biased and aimed at shooting down the Opposition’s proposal rather than genuinely seeking ways to protect journalists.

EU law and Private International Law expert Justin Borg-Barthet told The Shift News government got “sound, albeit imperfect, unbalanced and incomplete, answers to the wrong question”.

The minister, Borg-Barthet said, “should have sought advice on how to defend the Maltese press from vexatious suits. Given his documented collusion in Henley & Partners’ SLAPP suit threats, it’s hardly surprising that he did the reverse. He sought advice on how to strike down Jason Azzopardi’s proposal.”

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