UPDATED: SLAPPing down dissenting voices

The article has been updated to include the statement by Partit Demokratiku.

Political and public action is needed in defence of press freedom as the Maltese media faces increased attempts at intimidation by global firms wanting to silence the press, according to lawyers reacting to the latest threat on The Shift made by Henley and Partners.

The company awarded a multi million-euro contract to act as agents of Malta’s cash-for-citizenship scheme with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as its salesman, threatened to take legal action against The Shift in the US and the UK if an article was not removed by the next day.

Henley and Partners also ordered this news portal to remove social posts related to the article entitled, ‘Henley and Partners involved in Grenada diplomatic passports scandal,‘ and said The Shift was not to publish the letter containing the threat.

In its reply to Henley and Partners, The Shift said it would not remove the story and the letter received would be published.

The SLAPP  – strategic lawsuit against public participation – is a lawsuit that aims to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they are forced to abandon their criticism.

While Henley and Partners threatens journalists in Malta, it is promoting “an exclusive gala dinner” in London with Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, which is being organised “with the participation of the Government of Malta”.

The event will be held at Drapers’ Hall in April to “celebrate the remarkable success of the Malta Individual Investor Programme,” as the passport sales scheme is called. The scheme has been mired in controversy and corruption allegations.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who is a regular speaker at Henley and Partners’ international events, was addressing a Henley & Partners conference on citizenship in Hong Kong while the EU Parliament was voting on a report on the rule of law in Malta.

SLAPP lawsuits have been made illegal in many jurisdictions because they impede freedom of speech.

Mainstream media houses in Malta have already succumbed to this pressure by Pilatus Bank.

Legal protection can be offered to the press: “The [Maltese] government should legislate to make judgements obtained abroad for defamation unenforceable in Malta,” lawyer Andrew Borg Cardona said.

Journalists and citizens have supported The Shift’s stand on social media, by republishing the letter and the story that Henley and Partners want buried. Frederik Obermaier, an investigative journalist for the Munich-based newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, who helped initiate the Panama Papers-revelation, was among those who republished Henley and Partners’ letter to The Shift.

Hundreds of people also supported The Shift’s call for support, when events unfolded on Christmas Eve.

The implications of such lawsuits are severe. “SLAPPs are yet another weapon in this era of post-truth…A SLAPP lawsuit helps create a world where one particular version of the truth vanishes from circulation – not because it was untrue but because it became too expensive to assert.

“One way to fight this assault on freedom of expression is to make it impossible for the SLAPP lawsuit to become effective. Each and every one of us can be part of this. Pick up the news that they want to suppress. Circulate it,” lawyer Jacques Rene Zammit said.

The SLAPP threat is a reality. It is the public’s right to access information, to know the facts, that is being threatened.

It is Orwellian: “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth” (1984).

Partit Demokratiku yesterday issued a statement supporting The Shift’s stand: “We at Partit Demokratiku believe that the ability for the independent press in this country to investigate, report and bring to account both public figures and private companies is an absolutely essential part of our democracy.

“In this atmosphere of lack of transparency regarding anything related to government programmes with private companies and international dealings it is even more essential that the press question, probe, and investigate and put things under scrutiny freely and without fear of persecution”.

The Labour Party and the Nationalist Party have remained silent on the issue.

“A threat to the free press is a threat to all of us. We must show we will not be intimidated by big business and their financial muscle,” PD said.

The Shift is so far the only news outlet in Malta not to succumb to the threat of financially crippling lawsuits, and it has called on the public to support its stand.


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