The Malta Independent 5 August 2020, Wednesday

TMID Editorial: SLAPP lawsuits - Preventative action still needed

Saturday, 22 February 2020, 08:57 Last update: about 6 months ago

The issue of strategic lawsuits against public participation, better known though its acronym SLAPP, is still a matter of concern for the Maltese press, even though it hasn’t been the topic of public debate for quite some time.

A SLAPP lawsuit is when entities shop around for foreign jurisdictions to bring lawsuits against individual or media companies worth exorbitant financial damages in an attempt to silence and intimidate. The legal fees associated in fighting such a lawsuit are enough to force an individual or media company to back down.

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Plaintiffs in SLAPP lawsuits do not expect to win the case, but expect that the high cost of fighting such a lawsuit is enough to bring down the defendant, or force them to retract their statements even if what they said was true.

In Malta, there is no defence against such action, and indeed Maltese media houses have been threatened in the past by such lawsuits. The most infamous example is when Pilatus Bank had threatened The Malta Independent, The Times of Malta and MaltaToday with SLAPPs over their reportage in the lead-up to the last general election. It was also reported that Henley & Partners, the concessionaires of the Individual Investor Programme, had threatened theshiftnews.com with a SLAPP lawsuit over an article carried about allegations against it in Grenada.

Suing a newspaper printed in Malta, whose main audience is in Malta, in a  foreign jurisdiction where there are exorbitantly high costs associated with fighting a legal case, is just plain wrong, abusive, and is not justice.

Politicians in Malta need to take action on this, and some form of defence against such action must be set up. How? That is not for us to answer, but such a threat for lawsuits damages democracy, damages the freedom of the press locally, and has a chilling effect on the media as a whole.

While Malta’s political class did well to eliminate criminal libel – a law which should really have been abolished long before – it would do well to take note of the damage SLAPP lawsuits can do to freedom of speech here in Malta.

In 2018, PN MP Jason Azzopardi had brought forward an anti-SLAPP amendment to a law, however then Justice Minister Owen Bonnici had argued that it went directly against EU legislation, and it was shot down.

The European Commission later, however, eventually proved Bonnici wrong, as European Commissioner for Justice Vera Jourová said that it was possible to prevent the enforcement of SLAPP judgments in other jurisdictions on the basis of public policy.

While this issue has not been a topic of debate in the country recently, it should very well be.

The press in Malta has gone through enough of a beating. The murder of a journalist, politicians trying to tarnish the reputation of the independent media, and threats of SLAPP lawsuits all chip away at the fourth pillar of democracy. Perhaps it’s time to start strengthening this institution, rather than just letting things stay the same.

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