Justice Minister Jonathan Attard was in Brussels this week bragging to his fellow EU justice ministers about the “proactive role” Malta is taking the field of anti-SLAPP legislation as his own government continues to wage a vexatious SLAPP campaign against The Shift.
Attard’s ministerial colleagues will undoubtedly be aware of his government’s actions along such lines after it received stern rebukes from bodies such as the European Parliament and the Council of Europe over the multiple SLAPP lawsuits it has filed against The Shift.
SLAPPs are legal challenges filed against a newsroom with the intention of crippling it financially and silencing its reporting. Different government ministries and agencies have filed 40 legal challenges against The Shift to block Freedom of Information requests on data the Commissioner said should be made public.
Without so much as a hint of irony, Attard told his European counterparts this week that “Malta has taken a proactive role in this field”.
It is not known what discussions went on behind closed doors but according to a Department of Information statement published on Friday, Attard said, “Malta is still and will continue to fully support action at a European level that aims to provide adequate and uniform safeguards for journalists and human rights defenders who get involved in public participation from judicial proceedings that are manifestly unfounded or abusive in the European Union.”
By the minister’s own yardstick, his government should be “proactive” and drop judicial proceedings it has instituted against The Shift, which are “manifestly unfounded or abusive”, as confirmed by the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and international press freedom organisations across Europe.
In a statement, the Council said it had reached a general approach on a proposed law against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). “Its goal is to prevent unfounded or abusive court proceedings against journalists and human rights defenders and to lay down rules with remedies against such proceedings.
“Thanks to the proposed EU law, persons confronted with SLAPP cases will benefit from a number of procedural safeguards and protections.”
In an unprecedented move, it is even taking the cases to the Court of Appeals after refusing rulings to release the information from Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal Chair Anna Mallia and Information and Data Protection Commissioner Ian Deguara, who ordered the release of information is requested because it is in the public interest.
Attard had similarly told his European counterparts last December that Malta is taking a strong position in favour of adequate safeguards for journalists “from judicial proceedings that are manifestly unfounded or abusive”.
Attard in December “reiterated” Malta’s “technical and political support for the [EU] anti-SLAPP Directive and its appeal against the choice of a restrictive approach because such an approach undermines the efficiency and effectiveness of the future Directive”.
Attard spearheaded the debacle of the draft law to protect journalists that he attempted to rush through Parliament without any proper consultation being undertaken.
The move drew widespread criticism not only from the majority of the Maltese press but internationally as well, from the likes of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and major international press organisations.
Attard still waiting on the committee of media experts
Attard said last December that once the government-appointed so-called committee of media experts completes the consultation process, the government will move ahead with the legislative process.
In any case, the government ignored its main recommendations and drafted its own Bill. According to Attard, this “completes the process of consultation”, and the government will move ahead with the legislative process.
This week, Attard said that “on a national level”, he was still waiting on the Committee of Experts on the Media to come back with more thoughts on the three Bills.
The justice minister’s SLAPP comments also come after the European Parliament passed a resolution last October calling on the Maltese government to immediately withdraw the 40 freedom of information appeals lodged against The Shift, stating that the appeals “could send a chilling message to media actors and citizens”.
Included in the call for the government to withdraw the multiple FOI appeals is MEPs’ concern that obstacles to media freedom and pluralism persist, especially regarding the Maltese government’s handling of access to information and the potentially discriminatory funding of media outlets.
It also comes in the wake of a scathing statement in which the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner published communications between herself and Prime Minister Robert Abela, in which she called on the government to drop the 40 cases.
In a letter sent to Prime Minister Robert Abela at the end of September, Commissioner Dunja Mijatović did not mince her words when she said: “Although the judicial process is still ongoing, the appeals [against The Shift’s Freedom of Information requests] already send a chilling message to media actors and the Maltese people at large that the government is ready to vigorously counter efforts to place official information under public scrutiny”.