A new threat of possible legal action against Malta-based investigative outlet The Shift News has highlighted the growing international abuse of defamation laws to silence public interest investigative reporting, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement.
The international press freedom organisation condemned the latest attempt to pressure The Shift News into removing an article on the findings of an international investigation on corruption by the OCCRP. RSF said the latest threat underscored the need to address the threats posed to journalism and broader press freedom by vexatious defamation lawsuits.
On 6 March, The Shift News received a letter from London law firm Simons Muirhead & Burton, on behalf of Russian banker Ruben Vardanyan, demanding the removal of an article published on 4 March under the headline “Troika laundromat: How the Russians moved their money into the west”.
The article published by The Shift News reported on the ‘Troika Laundromat’ revelations made by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), exposing a complex money-laundering scheme centred around Russian private investment bank Troika Dialog, once led by Vardanyan.
The letter from Simons Muirhead & Burton claimed the article had “potentially very serious adverse implications” for Vardanyan, and the firm stated: “We require the immediate removal of the article”.
In its response, The Shift News has said it would not comply with the demand. Vardanyan’s position was reported in the original article that was based on comments received by the OCCRP.
“The Shift News has emerged as one of the only outlets in Malta that continues to pursue in-depth investigative journalism into risky topics such as corruption in the aftermath of the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017,” RSF said.
The organisation noted previous threats of defamation suits faced by The Shift News, including from London-based global citizenship and residency advisory firm Henley & Partners.
UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent said: “We condemn this new threat as the latest in a long series of attempts to pressure The Shift News, which courageously continues to pursue risky investigative reporting that others don’t dare touch in Malta. It also highlights the growing international abuse of defamation laws to silence public interest investigative reporting – far too often with involvement from London-based firms in what amounts to attempts to censor independent media”.
Defamation law has been extensively abused in Malta, where a total of 27 defamation cases continue to be pursued posthumously against Caruana Galizia more than 16 months after her assassination.
These include a case filed by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat – who is also pursuing a defamation suit against her son Matthew Caruana Galizia – as well as two cases filed by Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri, and one case brought by Minister for Tourism Konrad Mizzi, who today dropped two other cases against Caruana Galizia linked to her Panama Papers reporting.
On 4 March, RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent took part in a workshop at the University of Aberdeen School of Law, where international experts examined the increasing use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), with the cases against The Shift News and Caruana Galizia highlighted as case studies.
RSF said that together with other participants at the conference, it was committed to exploring further possible collaboration to address the growing threats posed to journalism and to broader press freedom by the abuse of defamation laws.
Malta is ranked 65th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
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