Reporters without Borders (RSF) Director of International Campaigns, Rebecca Vincent, has voiced her support for investigative journalism in the public interest in the face of a SLAPP threat from Azerbaijani-British National Turab Musayev, who featured in the Montenegro scandal.
In comments to The Shift, Vincent said the Montenegro wind farm story has come to light thanks to “courageous investigative journalism which must be protected”. Her comments were echoed by international organisation Article 19, which defends freedom of expression – the organisation slammed the threat of such financially crippling lawsuits intended to silence the press.
“We stand in solidarity with The Shift News as they face yet another vexatious defamation lawsuit intended to silence their public interest reporting. This case again evidences corrupt ties between Malta and Azerbaijan, which powerful interests have worked extensively to cover up,” Vincent told The Shift.
Her comments come following SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) threats received by newsrooms in Malta for reporting on the Montenegro scandal.
The Azerbaijani-British national is Socar Trading’s Head of LNG trading and was named by Reuters as an owner of Cifidex, a company that was involved in the Montenegro wind farm deal with Enemalta.
“Too often we are seeing London law firms effectively facilitating efforts to silence independent media in Malta and elsewhere through abusive SLAPP suits – an abhorrent practice that must be put to a stop,” Vincent told The Shift.
Vincent also expressed her solidarity in a tweet where she slammed defamation suits aimed to stifle media freedom.
In full solidarity with @TheShiftNews, which is facing another SLAPP suit intended to silence their public interest reporting – this time on a dodgy wind farm deal in Montenegro. How long will London law firms continue facilitating abuse of defamation law? https://t.co/adSYSpLfvz
— Rebecca Vincent (@rebecca_vincent) July 8, 2020
In an op-ed she had written for The Shift following a resolution in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that had led to the adoption of Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt’s report on the investigation into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination and the rule of law in Malta, Vincent had warned about the threat to democracy posed by Azerbaijan.
Article 19 also expressed its support on Twitter: “These legally baseless lawsuits are designed to intimidate and silence critical journalists.”
The NGO called on the EU Commission to “urgently pass anti-SLAPP measures to prevent this abusive practice.”
#Malta: Yet another #SLAPP suit against @TheShiftNews. These legally baseless lawsuits are designed to intimidate and silence critical journalism. We stand with @TheShiftNews and call on the @EU_Commission to urgently pass anti-SLAPP measures to prevent this abusive practice. https://t.co/x2w5nXHCr0
— ARTICLE 19 ECA (@article19europe) July 8, 2020
MEP David Casa on Wednesday sent a letter to Atkins Thomson Solicitors, the law firm engaged by Musayev demanding he retract threats made against media houses in Malta. Apart from The Shift, threats were received by Lovin Malta, Malta Today, The Times of Malta and The Malta Independent.
Casa, who is a member of the Media Working Group of the European Parliament focused on fighting SLAPP threats, said the substance of the scandal is linked to the investigative work of journalist Caruana Galizia who was assassinated in order to prevent her from exposing linked cases of high level corruption and money laundering.
In the letter, he explains that the European Commission is currently working on legislation that would prohibit the very actions that Musayev has undertaken.
“Until such legislation is in place, you will find the European Parliament standing side by side with media houses that are threatened and harassed by those they investigate and their legal representatives.”
He insisted that if the threats were not retracted, the situation would inevitably be escalated.
The Shift published the threat received in full together with its reply in which it was made clear that the newsroom would not retract its findings, as well as insisting its journalists would continue to reveal facts on the deal in the public interest.
The Shift announced the threat and chose to make the letter public because the silence behind such threats has in the past succeeded in getting newsrooms to withdraw stories and alter the public record.
This is the fourth SLAPP threat received by The Shift. In every case, the newsroom has stood by its reporting.
Joining the support for local journalists was the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) who said that this was a unique opportunity for the government to support free speech. The IGM has requested an urgent meeting with the government to seek a way forward to protect journalists.
The Opposition has twice presented a Bill in parliament to protect journalists against such threats. The first Bill was rejected when Owen Bonnici was Justice Minister. The second Bill proposed last February has as yet not been discussed.