Study highlights lawsuits targeting media in Malta as ‘problematic practice’ in Europe

SLAPP threats in Malta are highlighted as one of Europe’s ‘problematic practices’, in a new study by the Committee on Civil Liberties and Justice of the European Parliament (LIBE).

The use of lawsuits filed in Malta, meant to financially cripple local media organisations, was noted in a recently released report on similar practices throughout Europe.

The report has singled out Malta as an example of the vexatious threats, meant to cause financial losses to media organizations, in the introduction and conclusion of the report.

SLAPP, the initials for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, are court actions aimed at financially crippling a media organisation, as mounting a defence against lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions requires significant amounts of money.

“Some problematic practices can also be detected across the European Union, such as threats to media pluralism and freedom in Hungary and Poland; a high incidence of SLAPPs in, for instance, Malta,” where there are also concerns about impunity and the rule of law, it said.

The study, requested by the committee and published in July, sheds light on a problematic environment for journalists in certain parts of Europe, and in countries such as Malta.

The report also looks into emerging threats against journalism, defamation suits and SLAPP threats, in particular. Malta falls under the category of countries, which include Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Spain. All of these countries, the report states, have “problematic practices” with regards to their interactions with journalists.

“Malta has been the subject of numerous reports and resolutions detailing a problematic climate for media freedom and the protection of journalism,” noted the report. The report goes on to mention how Malta ranked  81st in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, falling four places since 2019.

“Importantly, Reporters Without Borders and The Shift News organisation published a report in October 2019 on the deteriorating press freedom climate in Malta, and detailed the aftermath of the shocking assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017,” it added.

The murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia features prominently in the section about Malta. It notes that despite three suspects being charged with the murder, the “ending of impunity requires holding accountable not only those who carried out the murder but everyone complicit in it, including the masterminds behind it.”

An EU delegation had acknowledged the progress in investigating the murder, but noted the “case is far from being closed.”

The report urges EU legislative bodies to implement anti-SLAPP measures, to shield journalists and media houses. The report also recommends a more systematic approach to address different dimensions, to ensure the safety of journalists.

“The European Commission is encouraged, building on calls by the European Parliament and civil society organisations to accelerate its work on a comprehensive legislative package to prevent SLAPPs in Europe.”

The Shift has faced a number of SLAPP threats, the most recent coming from Turab Musayev, the Azerbaijani-British National who was SOCAR Trading’s representative on the Board of Electrogas. The Shift had made the threatening letter public and stated that such threats on behalf of Musayev were unacceptable.

Defamation laws are also an issue, as legislation sometimes has loopholes, definitional vagueness, an absence of adequate defences, and an absence of checks and balances to ensure equality of legal tools available to plaintiffs and defendants, the report found.

It also called for “safety and protection, media pluralism and transparency of media ownership and the broader conditions needed for quality journalism to flourish, including working conditions and support measures, in the face of massive losses of revenue.”

“Other actors, who lack the shield of institutional resources and support, may be particularly vulnerable to threats and attacks related to their contributions to public debate. This point is well illustrated by the chilling effect of SLAPPs on individuals or small NGOs, who lack the financial resources to defend themselves against such lawsuits.”

Long-standing threats to the safety of journalists are persisting, the report warned. Such threats include threats and acts of violence, impunity for crimes against journalists and “vexatious” use of litigation against them (especially on the basis of defamation laws).

Other threats include gender-related threats, restrictions on media freedom and access to information regarding COVID-19 measures, the report said.

Malta reports three media threats in four months

Meanwhile, Malta reported three media freedom alerts to the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) between March and June 2020, according to a separate report published recently.

The MFRR tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU member states and candidate countries. In total, 120 media freedom alerts were registered during the four-month period.

Key trends include the impact of COVID-19 on independent journalism, police violence, and online harassment.

The report was compiled by the International Press Institute (IPI) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), with support from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). IPI and EFJ lead the MFRR’s media freedom monitoring.

“The project’s first four-months of work has seen a wide range of threats against media freedom, including policy-makers and government officials singling out journalists for harassment, the use of vexatious legal action to stifle independent scrutiny or attacks on media workers by protesters and police officers,” it said.

Turkey, Germany, Italy and the UK were found to have the highest number of threats, with 16, 14, 11 and 11, respectively.

                           
                               
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