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Return of the Middle Ages

The more cosmopolitan we become, the fewer guarantees for a free press it seems we have.

They are the best of times, they are the worst of times. It’s a time for the invention of new forms of finance, science and knowledge. A time for fusion food and an age of romantic love. For passionate public debate, challenges to authority and crowdfunded startups. For warnings about Islam and the end of the planet.

That’s the Middle Ages for you. The medieval world can sound surprisingly familiar to us with its apocalyptic visions and crusades; politically correct policing of orthodoxies and heresies; exciting discoveries about logic and nature; invention of the university and double-entry accounting; cult of romantic love and embrace of the mendicant orders (as those crowdfunded social entrepreneurs, the Franciscans and Dominicans, referred to themselves).

Umberto Eco pointed all this out 50 years ago, when he also drew attention to the return of medieval-like gated cities and private security firms. But what he couldn’t add – since it just wasn’t a problem in the 1960s – is the return of powerful feudal barons who, just because they feel that you’ve said something that slighted their honour, get their men to burn down your barn, slaughter your animals and drive you into penury.

Well, now we’ve got that too, as we’ve been reminded by the latest instance of a SLAPP threat levied against The Shift News.

It’s about a tactic that effectively changes a libel law into a censorship law, and a protective instrument into a weapon of intimidation.

Make no mistake. That’s what’s happening when a globe-trotting oligarch gets his law firm to threaten you with an expensive lawsuit in another country, unless you shut up and do what he says. Your facts may be right but any Maltese news organisation risks bankruptcy if it even tries to defend its case abroad. You’ll need lawyers as good as his and what you earn doesn’t permit what top foreign law firms charge.

So yes, we’re effectively dealing with a threat to set fire to the farm. It’s an effective threat to destroy your organisation. The affronted feudal lord could take you to court in Malta. But what he really wants is to ruin you if you have the effrontery to try and defend yourself.

So the issue is not about legal redress. It’s about a tactic that effectively changes a libel law into a censorship law, and a protective instrument into a weapon of intimidation.

The wickedness of SLAPP threats is so obvious that it could seem like a boring subject. It’s a no-brainer. What’s there to discuss? Three points, as it happens, since they’re not always spelled out.

First, the impact of SLAPP threats on the press is manifold. Some steer clear of the dangers and thus censor themselves.

Others publish but then, under threat, retract their articles. When they’re found out they are shamed and lose some credibility with their readers. Some stigma sticks. Hence, a double victory for the feudal lord throwing his weight around.

A third group, like The Shift, does not budge. But in doing so they’re aware they’ve effectively challenged the feudal lord to do his worst. And they need to prepare for that eventuality, losing much valuable time and resources on preparations for a possible battle. All are time and resources lost from getting on with the core job.

It’s a mistake to think the issue is about media freedom. It’s about everyone’s freedom.

Here’s the irony of having a self-styled cosmopolitan government, like Malta’s, that says it cannot do anything about SLAPP actions. The more cosmopolitan we become, the fewer guarantees for a free press it seems we have.

Second, it’s a mistake to think the issue is about media freedom. It’s about everyone’s freedom.

SLAPP threats try to control the information at your disposal. Unshackled reporting must not touch those pillars of decision-making, politics and economics. The super-rich are too big to be stopped; you are too minor to matter.

SLAPP threats change the nature of freedom and equality. Might becomes right. We are no longer equal under the law. Money twists arms under the guise of the law. Freedom no longer is a space we all occupy. As in the Middle Ages, it becomes a personal attribute that the aristocrats have and the serfs don’t.

Finally, there is the context of the upcoming European Parliament elections. The European Commission has contradicted the government’s position that EU law prevents Malta from changing its laws to protect the media against SLAPP. But even if you accept the government’s legal advice is correct, a Maltese MEP could fight for a reform of jurisdictional rules in the EU (say, along the lines advocated by the Aberdeen legal scholar, Justin Borg-Barthet).

Here are two questions the press should ask every candidate seeking our vote in May. Does he or she deplore the use of SLAPP? If elected, does he or she commit to working for legal reform?

Instead of sounding off about loving Malta, candidates would have to show it. Let them renounce the devil of SLAPP and all its works. The press doesn’t have to be the Holy Inquisition to get them to see the stakes.

The Shift News is appealing for donations to support its fight. You can donate by clicking the banner below or by visiting our donate page. Thank you for your support.

U ejja, come on – it’s just €4 million spent on ‘false allegations’ in five months!

Patrick Dalli

On the journalist’s duty to scrutinise those in power… and their spouses