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Lawsuits that cripple journalists: Malta a protagonist in debate on press freedom

Media freedom and the abuse of lawsuits to silence journalists will be the topic of discussion at a workshop at the University of Aberdeen on Monday, including the participation of Matthew Caruana Galizia, son of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, as well as The Shift News founder Caroline Muscat and leading international press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders.

Matthew was previously a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) where he worked on the Panama Papers leak . His mother was one of the few Maltese journalists who, even under the threat of SLAPP suits filed by Pilatus Bank, refused to redact or remove online news articles relating to allegations of misconduct and money laundering.

SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) are intended to financially cripple journalists through threats of lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions where it would be impossible for media workers in other countries to mount a defence. The cost of fighting such a lawsuit is beyond the means of any national newsroom.

The Shift News also received similar threats from Henley & Partners, the global firm that designed Malta’s cash-for-passports programme and remains its main concessionaire. The Shift News received an email on Christmas Eve, a few weeks after the portal was launched, demanding the removal of a story published.

Henley and Partners letter to The Shift
Henley and Partners’ letter to The Shift

The Shift News had reported on Henley & Partners involvement in the Grenada Diplomatic passport scandal before receiving a letter that if the article was not removed, legal action could be taken in the USA or the UK. The Shift News refused to comply, and published the letter received and the response. It later emerged that most of the independent news portals in Malta had already complied after receiving similar threats.

The Shift News reply to Henley & Partners on threat of SLAPP lawsuit.
The Shift News’ reply to Henley & Partners on threat of SLAPP lawsuit.

The workshop at Aberdeen University is organised by Justin Borg-Barthet, himself a lecturer on European Union Law.

“We are delighted to have gathered global leaders in journalism, activism, the legal profession, academia and public service. Abuse of libel laws is a widespread problem which strikes at the heart of democracy and the rule of law. We hope that this workshop will help to focus minds on both the need for legislative reform and the technical innovations required to achieve this.”

Other stakeholders and experts participating include Rebecca Vincent, UK Director Bureau for Reporters Without Borders, Gill Phillips Director of Editorial Legal Services for the Guardian, Flutura Kusari, Legal Advisor to the European Centre for Press and Media, and Tom Gibson from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The day’s discussions will provide vital information for NGOs and journalists concerning legal reforms to preserve media freedom, prior to the upcoming European Parliament elections.

The workshop will also coincide with the publication of an academic paper by Borg-Barthet entitled, ‘The Brussels I Regulation as an Instrument for the Undermining of Press Freedoms and the Rule of Law: an Urgent Call for Reform’.

Borg-Barthet is a strong advocate on the urgent need for anti-SLAPP legislation in the EU to ensure the protection of investigative journalists.

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