Prime Minister’s case against a dead journalist has ‘chilling effect on investigative journalism’

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has urged Joseph Muscat to drop libel suits against the late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia that the Prime Minister continues to pursue close to two years after her assassination.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Dunja Mijatović pointed out that 30 cases still stood against the journalist, most filed by public officials, that raised questions on the government’s commitment to justice in her case.

“Continuing these claims – many of which were lodged by public officials including yourself – is not only perceived as an intimidation of a family faced with the loss of their loved one but also raises questions regarding the Maltese authorities’ commitment to finding and bringing the masterminds of this horrendous crime to justice”.

The Commissioner’s letter to the Prime Minister was embargoed until 10 am on Thursday. Journalists were not permitted to publish the contents of the letter before that deadline.

Yet, this morning, an article published in The Times of Malta revealed the contents of the letter alongside the Prime Minister’s response, which was not public. This means that before the press could even report the requests made by the Human Rights Commissioner, the public received the Prime Minister’s version of events.

The Commissioner said these cases put “unwarranted psychological and financial pressure” on the Caruana Galizia family and may interfere with the right to protect journalistic sources.

“In defamation suits, the burden of proof lies with the respondent. In the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, this means that her heirs could be expected to reveal information on her journalistic work and sources,” the Human Rights Commissioner said.

“In my opinion, this is not only an excessive and very complex burden for the respondents but may also constitute an undue interference with the right to protection of journalistic sources, a principle that is firmly entrenched in the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights,” she added.

The Commissioner stressed that the libel suits against Caruana Galizia originate in her investigative work dealing with allegations of corruption in Malta. “It is my view that in cases involving matters of public interest such as those concerning corruption, Maltese legislation should permit the courts to take a more balanced approach and consider the reversal of the burden of proof,”  Mijatović said.

She wrote that she was sure that the situation endured by Caruana Galizia’s heirs “stands as an ominous warning to all journalists in Malta”, requesting the government to change the law.

“I believe that the current legal provisions which allow the passing of defamation cases to heirs put journalists and their families at risk and have a chilling effect on investigative journalism in particular. I urge your authorities to take measures to repeal these provisions which represent a real threat to journalistic freedom in your country,” the Commissioner concluded.

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