Strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) are lawsuits which threaten journalists and the common citizens. Local online news portal The Shift News has been threatened with such a lawsuit on Thursday.
Journalist and The Shift News co-founder and editor Caroline Muscat stated that imposing an obligation to remove a story is never acceptable in a democratic country. Muscat was interviewed on Newsline by Fr Joe Borg which is aired on RTK 103FM on Saturday.
The Shift News is once again threatened with a lawsuit known as SLAPP over their reporting the Troika Laundromat which was revealed by OCCRP, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. On Thursday, the online news portal received an “urgent legal letter” from a UK law firm representing Russian banker Ruben Vardanyan demanding the removal of an article on his alleged connections to the Troika Laundromat.
The lawsuit dubbed as SLAPP consists of legal action that is intended to censure, threaten or stop journalists by obliging them with the cost of legal defence if they abandon their criticism or opposition.
This was not the first time that The Shift News was faced with such threat, as the portal had already stood up to such a threat in its first year when threatened by Henley & Partners.
A threat to all journalists
During her interview on Newsline, Muscat said that SLAPP are a threat to all journalists, which is starting to be felt in Malta as the phenomenon becomes more popular. The journalist explained that when someone objects to something that is published, instead of seeking to sue the journalist or news organisation in a local court, the entities or individuals sue journalists or news organisations in courts either in the United Kingdom or the United States. Further, Muscat stated, such lawsuits which are intended to financially cripple the targeted organisation or journalist, are costly saying that one would have to find a lawyer in the country they are being sued in and the means to defend yourself. Muscat stressed that no journalist or newsroom in Malta has the financial capacities to defend themselves from SLAPP. In such lawsuits, the applicant would usually seek millions in damages, with Muscat mentioning Pilatus Bank suing slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Arizona and seeking an estimated $40 million in damages.
The journalist underlined that such lawsuits were not used as a means to seek justice, rather they are a threat to all journalists and newsrooms. Muscat referred to articles in the local press which were removed from their online portals following such threats, with the journalist stating that the articles were based on evidence and that they were in the public interest.
In this case, Muscat said, The Shift News is threatened with a SLAPP lawsuit for reporting on the Troika Laundromat. Muscat explained that the investigation is based on data which was compiled from multiple sources, and represents one of the largest releases of banking information, involving some 1.3 million leaked transactions from 238,000 companies.
How can one help?
The journalist directed those who would like to help out to their donations page. In the meantime, Muscat explained that they are in touch with foreign organisations and will not remove the story.
And in Malta…
Fr Joe Borg pointed out that a debate on the topic was held in Malta. Muscat recalled how the Opposition had presented a Bill in parliament to amend the media law to tackle SLAPP lawsuits.
However the journalist continued, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici had insisted that it went against European law, a claim which was later dismissed by the European Commissioner for Justice Věra Jourová.