Updated at 4.45pm with parliamentary intervention
It was possible to prevent the enforcement of SLAPP judgments in other jurisdictions on the basis of public policy, European Commissioner for Justice Vera Jourová stated on Wednesday.
She was replying to a parliamentary question submitted by Nationalist MEP David Casa about the legislation meant to prevent the media being threatened by lawsuits from other jurisdictions.
The EPP Group noted that the position of the European Commission contrasts with that of the Maltese government which rejected an Anti-SLAPP amendment proposed by PN MP Jason Azzopardi to the new media bill on the basis of incompatibility with EU law.
“It is clear that there is nothing in EU law that precludes measures to protect journalists from these abusive practices in national legislation”, Mr Casa said.
“The abysmal reasoning provided by Minister Owen Bonnici to justify the decision not legislate to protect Maltese journalists must be understood in the context of his complicity to silence Daphne Caruana Galizia through SLAPP. Today, the Commission has effectively rubbished the position taken by the Maltese government.”
The Commission said that an EU member state has a right to legislate against SLAPP originating in a jurisdiction outside the EU; and that EU member states have a right to protect their nationals against SLAPP originating from within the EU as long as it is done in good faith and in line with declared public policy.
PN MP Jason Azzopardi stated: “Owen Bonnici should immediately propose this amendment in parliament and give journalists the peace of mind to conduct their work that they deserve. Regrettably, Owen Bonnici’s track record does not augur that this will happen any time soon”.
David Casa is organising a debate in the European Parliament on SLAPP on Wednesday afternoon that will be attended by European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.
Minister accuses PN of taking her words out of context
The minister, however, saw the Commissioner’s response in a completely different light. Responding in parliament to a supplementary question posed by Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said that she had confirmed “100 per cent” the legal advice obtained by the government.
He said she had made clear that there were regulations governing how member states dealt with sentences issued in other countries.
Asked a further question by Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi, who quoted Jourová’s statement that harmonising legislation on such matters was not within the competence of the EU Commission, and that it was therefore up to member states to legislate against SLAPP on a national level, he accused the MP of “distorting” Jourová’s meaning by quoting only a short excerpt: “Her response is three paragraphs long, not just one”.
Dr Bonnici stated that the Commissioner had also said that sentences decided in EU member states had to be recognised and respected in other member states, and that the public policy exception allowed for by EU law was generally interpreted “very restrictively”.
With respect to third countries, member states were free to legislate as they saw fit, and he asserted that anti-SLAPP measures were already in Maltese law, which protected journalists from SLAPP cases from countries like the United States.
In such cases, all the journalist had to do in order to be protected was to refrain from participating in the cases in question.
“You have lost this one,” he said, challenging Dr Azzopardi to send his proposed anti-SLAPP amendment to the EU Commission in order to see whether they thought it to be in line with EU law.
Opposition MP Simon Busuttil also took issue with Dr Bonnici’s interpretation of the Commissioner’s statement. Even assuming that the government was right and that it could not protect against SLAPP lawsuits coming from other member states, was the government ready to protect journalists from SLAPP cases coming from third countries, he asked.
Dr Bonnici reiterated that the legal advice obtained from local and foreign experts demonstrated that such protections already existed.