Support for EUobserver after being threatened for Caruana Galizia article

Political activist and financier Bill Browder has put his weight behind the call by 16 press freedom organisations to stop using SLAPP suits in Europe after the Euobserver was targeted for publishing an article about Daphne Caruana Galizia.

This move of support came after Brussels-based online publication EUobserver was threatened by former spy Frank Schneider and Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi after publishing an article in 2019 stating that Schneider was involved in a disinformation campaign about Caruana Galizia.

A former head of operations at Luxumberg’s grand duchy security service, Schnieder now runs a private intelligence firm in Luxembourg called Sandstone, which is co-owned by Auchi.

Schnieder turned his focus onto the EUobserver after it published an article saying that British PR firm Chelgate, which had been hired by the Maltese State to defend the image of the former prime minister Joseph Muscat during the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s assassination, also hired Sandstone to compile a report on her killing.

Excerpts of Sandstone’s research, obtained by EUobserver, contained accusations that Russian president Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev had conspired to murder Caruana Galizia, using a Chechen assassin. Chelgate and its associates also briefed targeted European media about Caruana Galizia, promoting these and similar conspiracy theories about her, EUobserver said.

Schnieder filed a criminal libel case against the EUobserver in Luxembourg courts, which threw out the case. He then told a Luxumberg publication that would file another suit in Belgium. It is still not yet clear whether Schnieder has yet filed the suit.

Browder, who is head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign, supported the call made by 16 press freedom organisations last week who, in a letter to the European Commission, to act definitively to protect media freedom across Europe. Over the years, Browder has led an international campaign to expose corruption and human-rights abuses in Russia and, through his efforts, the Magnitsky Act was passed, which forbids “gross abusers” of rights in Russia from banking in or visiting the United States. The Act is named after Browder’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblower who died in a Moscow prison in 2009.

“There has been a clear increase in legal threats and judicial harassment across Europe: The use of SLAPPs to target and restrict journalists and media workers, exerts significant pressure on media freedom, enabling powerful and wealthy litigants to stifle legitimate criticism through the abuse of existing laws, most notably, defamation,” the organisations said in their letter.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) are notoriously long drawn out and extremely expensive legal battles filed by organisations or individuals in an attempt to silence opinions or criticisms made by media organisations and journalists.

The Shift has also faced threats of SLAPP lawsuits from Henley and Partners and a Russian banker demanding that stories be taken down. The Shift refused and published the threats received. Three months ago, The Shift also received a letter from a Croatian legal firm demanding €300,000 for Kristijan Curavić, the man behind the idea of the White Flag scheme for damages he claimed to have suffered as a result of articles exposing the scam. Once again, The Shift refutes these claims and published the letter.

In their letter, the press freedom organisations pointed out that 119 civil society organisations had separately asked the European Commission to undertake concrete legislative and other measures to end gag lawsuits in Europe, including an Anti-SLAPP directive.

Left unreformed, these legal threats would be sufficient for journalists, media workers and outlets to step back from covering sensitive but necessary topics.

“Coupled with diminished access to legal representation, we are facing a significant threat to the overall media landscape and with it a less empowered citizenry and weakened rule of law across the European Union,” they said.

The letter was signed by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Algemene Vereniging van Belgische Beroepsjournalisten, Article 19, Association of European Journalists, Committee to Protect Journalists, European Federation of Journalists, Free Press Unlimited, Global Forum for Media Development, Index on Censorship, International Press Institute, Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa, PEN International, Reporters Without Borders, South East Europe Media Organisation, The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation and Vereniging Europese Journalisten- Belgische sectie (AEJ Belgium).

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