To weaken the media is to weaken our democracy.
On Monday 9th April, the Consideration of Bills Committee shall be meeting in parliament to discuss the Media and Defamation Bill presented last November. The amendments being discussed are of various technical details, but the most notable of them all is the bill put forward by PN MP Jason Azzopardi, which focuses primarily on anti-SLAPP legislation. There are reports that the Government will be voting against the amendments.
SLAPP lawsuits, or “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, are lawsuits filed by large organizations against media houses, with the primary purpose of intimidating and censoring through the threat of high legal costs. This is most commonly done when a media outlet publishes an article with harsh criticism or accusation against an organization.
The organization in question would retaliate by threatening the outlet with a costly lawsuit, most likely in a foreign court, as a way of financially pressuring them into retracting any statements made against the firm. SLAPP lawsuits tend to go hand-in-hand with the practice of libel tourism, which is when the accusing organization, or plaintiff, pursues legal action in a specific country due to its more favourable legal system.
Malta has seen a number of such cases in recent months. Back in May of last year, Pilatus Bank infamously threatened all Maltese media outlets involved in the publishing of “harmful allegations” against the company. The bank had stated that they shall be pursuing legal action “in all international competent courts for commercial and punitive damages due to irreparable harm to the bank and its stakeholders”.
This is not the only time that such an attempt of censorship has taken place on our islands. Henley & Partners, the company tasked with the implementation and promotion of the Malta Individual Investor Programme, threatened to take legal action against The Shift News after the media outlet published an article on the company’s rumoured involvement in the Grenada Diplomatic Passport scandal of last year.
With regards to legislation preventing such practice, the Vice President of the EU Commission has stated that work is being done on an EU level so as to introduce legislation aimed at the prevention of SLAPP lawsuits. This is after Nationalist MP David Casa called upon the EU to take action against Pilatus Bank for the harassment of Maltese media houses.
On a local level, the anti-SLAPP amendment tabled by PN MP Jason Azzopardi to the Media and Defamation Bill is still being debated in parliament, and has so far been the subject of a number of differing views. Environment Minister José Herrera commented on the anti-SLAPP legislation, saying a better solution would be to delay its implementation so as “to examine the subject further and wait to see how the problem is evolving in other countries”.
Practices such as these not only violate our freedom of expression, but also pose a major flaw in our democracy. Now more than ever, the media plays a vital role in keeping governments accountable, and it is upon this accountability that a true democracy lies. Anti-SLAPP measures should be formulated with great attention to detail, and should not be delayed in its implementation.
By delaying such legislation for too long, the government chooses to protect the organizations out to threaten the media, as opposed to the very citizens of our Maltese islands.