The threat of legal action in the US and the UK made by Henley and Partners on The Shift in an attempt to get an article on the company removed, has been registered as a threat to press freedom by the European project Mapping Media Freedom.
On Christmas Eve, The Shift reported it had received a letter from Henley and Partners demanding an article entitled, Henley and Partners involved in Grenada diplomatic passports scandal, be removed. Henley and Partners also stated that the letter was not to be made public.
Mapping Media Freedom identifies threats, violations and limitations faced by members of the press throughout European Union member states, candidates for entry and neighbouring countries.
The project is co-funded by the European Commission. It is operated by Index on Censorship in partnership with the European Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. Mapping Media Freedom works together with the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.
In a letter addressed to journalists Caroline Muscat and Jurgen Balzan, Henley and Partners threatened legal action unless an article, authored by Balzan which states that Henley and Partners was involved in a cash-for-passport scandal, was removed from The Shift website.
“We want to make it clear that Henley and Partners and the Government of Grenada have repeatedly and categorically denied any involvement in the purported attempt to obtain diplomatic passports from Grenada or indeed anywhere else,” the letter, which was sent via email, stated.
The Shift has refused to comply with either the removal of the article or the confidentiality of the letter, stating that any further attempts to threaten its right to freedom of expression would be “reacted to in the fullest manner allowed by law”.
Henley and Partners made similar legal threats to Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia based on her reporting in the months before she was assassinated.
In her reply she had stated: “I have in my possession evidence, in the form of email exchanges between the addressees of this message, that Henley and Partners’ threat/decision to sue me in the UK courts was taken on instruction from, and in collusion with you, the Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and the Justice Minister, Owen Bonnici.
“Following a meeting on the subject with the Justice Minister, Christian Kalin, who is group chairman of Henley and Partners, outlined a plan under which letters designed to intimidate with the threat of a financially ruinous and extremely cumbersome law suit in the ‘UK courts’ were to be sent to me, to the Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi, and to ‘three media houses’ in an attempt at dissuading us from further scrutiny of Henley and Partners and its opaque and damaging activities in Malta”.
SLAPP lawsuits are the latest threat to press freedom in Malta. Mainstream media houses in Malta have already succumbed to this pressure by Pilatus Bank.
The implications of a SLAPP lawsuit are severe. “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,” according to lawyer Jacques Rene Zammit.
Journalists and citizens, as well as Partit Demokratiku, 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.
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.