A solution protecting journalists against SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) and Libel Tourism is required and legally possible but requires a reassessment of the fundamental right to freedom of expression in today’s digital world, the Malta Information Technology Law Association (MITLA) said.
The association said that Maltese law should prohibit the recognition and enforcement of foreign defamation judgements and constitutional provisions related to freedom of speech should be applied to protect Maltese persons from threats emanating or arising from situations of SLAPP and, most importantly, libel tourism.
“A Maltese solution should recognise that freedom of speech is a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 41 of the Constitution of Malta and other applicable international treaties and conventions, and the protection of such right is necessary both offline and online,” MITLA said in a press statement.
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. In December Henley and Partners 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.
Noting the ongoing discussion in relation to SLAPP and the Private Member’s Bill presented to Parliament by the Nationalist Party, MITLA said foreign defamation lawsuits risk suppressing the right to freedom of expression.
MITLA said the obstruction or interference on the rights of journalists and media professionals through the filing, or threat of filing, of foreign defamation lawsuits has a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression and attacks the right of the Maltese public to receive information on matters of public importance.
“Foreign defamation lawsuits risk suppressing such fundamental rights, especially where the cause of action on which the foreign judgment is based is repugnant to the public policy of Malta. This is itself exacerbated when the foreign court is a seriously inconvenient forum for the action. MITLA believes that SLAPP is a matter of public concern and therefore should be a matter of Maltese public policy,” MITLA added.
Last month MEPs also called for European legislation that would curtail abusive legal SLAPP practices.