If you don’t want to be sued, stop asking questions.
That’s what a government lawyer for the Planning Authority said in court this week to representatives of The Shift dragged there by 40 different government agencies to defend this news portal in 40 different lawsuits.
What did we do wrong? Surely we must have done something for the full weight of government power to come crashing down on us.
We filed Freedom of Information requests to find out how these government agencies are spending your money.
That’s all it takes these days to get SLAPPed in Malta.
Now, maybe I’m a little slow. I blame an unusually cold December for rendering my normally speedy neurotransmitters as sluggish as slush in a winter river. But doesn’t this clash with the grand intentions Prime Minister Robert Abela spoke of in the wake of the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination?
Abela cares so deeply about the safety of journalists he began his implementation of the public inquiry board’s recommendations with a ‘media reform’ Bill that he assured us would be “groundbreaking” and “highly innovative”.
So eager was the prime minister to protect the press that he raced ahead without consulting the public, the local media, or expert international press freedom organisations, and without tabling a copy of his committee’s review in parliament within the specified time — a direct violation of his own terms of reference.
Say one thing and do another. It’s the same story again and again.
When the public inquiry’s report was published, Abela stood up in parliament and said, “We are going to create a plan to implement the recommendations made by the inquiry board”.
More than a year later, the only one of the board’s 28 recommendations to be implemented was the setting up of the hand-picked committee of experts for the government’s badly fumbled reform Bill.
Abela could have saved everyone a lot of effort by voting in favour of 12 draft bills presented to parliament by the Opposition, which would have implemented the public inquiry’s recommendations in full.
Abela said in print that the inquiry’s “report merits mature analysis beyond partisan arguments.”
On the fifth anniversary of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s brutal murder, the prime minister scheduled a partisan Labour Party rally rather than attend a mass of remembrance with visiting EU dignitaries.
The prime minister responded to the death of 20-year-old JeanPaul Sofia in a building collapse by tweeting, “Thanks to the [rescue] workers from different departments for their work in the most difficult conditions.”
Days later, his government’s Building and Construction Agency announced a massive party to celebrate the ‘achievements’ of an industry that treats the people who work for it as utterly disposable.
When it comes to matching actions and words, Abela’s underlings are no better.
Justice Minister Jonathan Attard told his European counterparts that Malta believes in protecting journalists “from judicial proceedings that are manifestly unfounded or abusive” and that Malta is committed to the EU’s anti-SLAPP directive — even as government lawyers ganged up to SLAPP The Shift into bankruptcy.
Finance Minister Clyde Caruana told Air Malta employees, “The reforms that have to be enacted are brutal and working conditions going forward are non-negotiable if we want to have a viable airline” — even as he dished out millions of euros in ‘consulting’ contracts to friends of friends.
This total disconnect between words and actions isn’t what Abela’s supporters voted for, at least on paper.
Labour’s last pre-election manifesto, ‘Malta Flimkien’, said: “A new government will administer the people’s funds with responsibility and care guided by the values of accountability and transparency.”
Instead, he delivers obfuscation.
His government doesn’t just hide all the money it dished out to Saviour Balzan. The prime minister also hides his own income — including the money he made renting a derelict Zejtun property to Russian cash-for-passport customers who used it to check the ‘Malta residency’ box without having lived there.
His ministers followed their leader’s example, playing fast and loose with the code of ethics so they could omit certain items from their mandatory declaration of assets, too.
In doing so, they managed to exceed the utter disdain that Joseph Muscat showed for transparency and accountability in the form of his magical unchanging bank balance.
Muscat used a combination of bluster and careful word games to avoid being pinned down by the truth.
Robert Abela drops the subtlety and reels off lies with utter shamelessness.
I guess this SLAPP-happy government achieved one objective with their lawsuits. They haven’t won any of them so far, despite appeal after appeal. But they did plan to consume half The Shift’s newsroom budget.
Funds that would have been spent on investigations are now being used to defend ourselves in court for asking questions.