‘Silencing Freedom. Weaponising the Law.’ SLAPP suits centre of The Shift’s conference

Tista taqra dan l-artiklu bil-Malti.

A conference held by The Shift entitled ‘Silencing Freedom, Weaponising The Law’ saw a group of international panellists discussing press freedom, media legislation, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) and other challenges facing journalists today.

The panellists, who included press freedom advocates, journalists, lawyers and campaigners, discussed the weaponisation of legislation against journalists, its consequences and the state of journalism and media freedom in Europe.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola opened the conference with a video message in which she declared her support for The Shift and discussed the importance of upcoming EU anti-SLAPP legislation.

She said while she wished the European Parliament would not need to introduce legislation for the safety of journalists, the proposal has both her and the parliament’s complete support.

The conference’s first panel discussion, moderated by The Shift’s founder and managing editor, Caroline Muscat, focused on the different forms in which SLAPPs, lawsuits which are intended to silence, censor, or otherwise muzzle activists and journalists, can be maliciously deployed.

The panel discussed how SLAPP suits have evolved past simple defamation suits, abusing other laws, sometimes even ones ostensibly designed to protect journalists. The recently introduced “disinformation” legislation in Turkey was given as an example.

Panel member Caoilfhionn Gallagher, an international human rights lawyer and expert in journalists’ safety and media freedom from Doughty Street Chambers discussed the term “Lawfare”, denoting the weaponisation of legal courses of action against journalists.

She described how tactics used in traditional warfare were now being employed in legal battles against journalists and newsrooms.

Tactics included attrition, involving lengthy legal cases designed to wear down journalists and newsrooms with high morale but low resources; decapitation, which involves targeted legal attacks at the heads of organisations in efforts to discredit or silence them; and asymmetric costs, which aims at ensuring legal action taken against newsrooms will always cost them more than the plaintiff.

Gallagher was joined on the panel by Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) steering committee member Charlie Holt, Maria Ordzhonikidze, director of the Justice for Journalists Foundation, Eve Borg Costanzi, lawyer and member of the Council of Europe’s SLAPP Experts Committee, and MEP David Casa.

This year, CASE found that out of 47 countries analysed, Malta had by far the worst rate of SLAPP cases per capita, largely due to the government’s multiple court challenges against 40 freedom of information requests filed by The Shift.

Casa spoke about the European Parliament’s efforts in introducing new anti-SLAPP legislation, noting challenges such as its “watering-down” by council member states.

He called for Maltese journalists and civil society to keep pressure on the government to take on the recommendations seriously and implement adequate national legislation.

In comments to The Shift, Casa said member states’ resistance comes from opposition to the “relinquishing of control over national legal processes”.

He said national laws are often not enough to protect journalists, noting the importance of elements such as an early-dismissal mechanism for SLAPP cases.

(Left to right) Peter Geoghegan, Matthew Caruana Galizia, Joseph Borg, Flutura Kusari and Jamie Wiseman, along with moderator Herman Grech, took part in the second panel discussion

A second panel discussion focused on the effects of SLAPP cases on journalists’ work.

The panel, moderated by Times of Malta Editor Herman Grech, included panellists Jamie Wiseman from the International Press Institute, Flutura Kusari from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Matthew Caruana Galizia from the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, Peter Geoghegan, former editor of Open Democracy and Fr. Joseph Borg, media expert and University of Malta lecturer.

Kusari noted the importance of documenting SLAPP cases, employing a “name and shame” strategy to expose bad actors, whether businessmen, politicians, or their legal counsel, and increase solidarity among journalists.

Borg said that lawyers often precipitate SLAPP cases in the name of their clients, abusing of legislation by their own initiative. In agreement, Geoghegan noted how “the same law firms show up time and time again to support bad actors in SLAPP cases – there are huge amounts of money to be had.”

Borg noted the importance of establishing how SLAPP cases impact not just journalists but the wider public. “We should not silo SLAPPs as a problem for just journalists, it is a problem for anyone with a right to know,” he said.

Caruana Galizia emphasised on the importance of a freedom of speech culture, noting how his mother, assassinated investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had over 40 pending SLAPP cases at the time of her murder.

Following observations and questions from audience member lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia, who assisted the Caruana Galizia family, he agreed that the government-appointed media committee had not done enough to propose legislation that would safeguard journalists, democracy and civil society.

Caruana Galizia said “writing in any society is a replacement for violence. We have to remember that in a democracy, tension and criticism of the state by society is normal and should be encouraged.”

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1 month ago

So the Prime Minister has approved the harassment or worse by having persons of thrust of certain kind following Dr.Robert Aquilina?
Is this Muscat’s CONTINUITY policy, that Abela is following?
Is Abela so close to mental collapse ?
Is commissioner Gafa so deep in the Mafia’s entrails that he is part of it?
We need to go back to the Gaketta Blue days and PROTECT OUR OWN.
I know what it means being hounded by labour thugs. But justice has been served , not in the courts but in the wooden boxes these goons ended up in by Natural Justice.
All’s well that ends well.

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