Opposition files Bill to protect journalists from SLAPP, again

The Opposition has put forward a draft law in Parliament to protect Maltese journalists from expensive and long-drawn-out strategic lawsuits of public participation (SLAPP) filed against them in different countries, safeguarding media freedom.

This is the second draft bill on anti-SLAPP measures put forward by the Opposition after the government voted against the first attempt two years ago in April 2018, claiming that it would breach EU law. Owen Bonnici, then Justice Minister, had used an excuse that existing laws already protected Maltese citizens against judgements from non-EU countries, as long as the defendants refuse to participate in the court proceedings.

This, however, was denied by European Vice President Vera Jourová who said an EU member state had a right to legislate against SLAPP filed outside the EU and that member states had a right to protect their nationals against SLAPP from within the EU as long as it was done in good faith and in line with declared public policy.

The previous bill had proposed protecting the media from these threats by giving Maltese courts “exclusive” jurisdiction over any Maltese publications “irrespective of whether the publication in question is hosted or otherwise broadcast from servers located outside Malta.”

It had also suggested that a libel judgement handed down against a Maltese person or entity would be considered to be contrary to public policy or to Maltese internal public law “unless the said person or entity has defended the case on its merits in the foreign court that shall have delivered the judgement that is sought to be enforced.”

In a statement, the Opposition pointed out that, following the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia,  local and foreign government officials and entities were using SLAPP lawsuits to threaten Maltese journalists and activists.

In fact, the crippling effect of SLAPP lawsuits on Caruana Galizia was recently discussed in a panel discussion organised by Greenpeace with her son Matthew describing them as a “form of torture” used against his mother who had around 50 pending libel cases before she was killed.

Maltese blogger Manuel Delia is the latest journalist to face a SLAPP lawsuit – this time from the Bulgarian owner of Maltese Satabank Christo Georgiev over a blog post where Delia said he regretted removing an earlier post reporting on allegations of money laundering at Satabank.

Georgiev also filed another suit in Bulgaria for damages to his reputation – this time against The Times of Malta for an article titled Billions of euros in Satabank transactions deemed highly suspicious. The owner claimed that a reference to him having faced international investigations had undermined his personal and professional authority and caused him psychological and physical discomfort.

The Shift has faced threats of SLAPP lawsuits from Henley and Partners and a Russian banker demanding that stories are taken down. The Shift refused and published the threats received.

The PN said it took this decision in light of the blatant cases of corruption taking place under a Labour government, which had eroded the rule of law.

Journalism, independent media and freedom of expression were the major pillars in a functioning democracy and were instrumental in exposing corruption, the Opposition said.

There is a growing concern on an international level about the effect of SLAPP suits – in fact,  27 international organisations wrote to European Commissioner Vice President Věra Jourová calling on her to include everyone who has been impacted by SLAPP lawsuits in the European Union’s proposed new rules.

Journalist Carole Cadwalladr has recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to sustain the massive legal costs of the SLAPP action she is facing from the British co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, who is refusing to drop the final two lawsuits.

The Bill was signed by Opposition leader Adrian Delia, deputy leader David Agius and MPs Therese Comodini Cachia, Jason Azzopardi and parliamentary whip Robert Cutajar.

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