The State has to protect – in any way necessary – the media’s freedom, which is jeopardised by unscrupulous entities that resort to foreign jurisdictions, MEP Roberta Metsola is insisting.

“When a bank that has been accused of being in the centre of illicit activities, including money laundering, begins to go after Malta’s critical media houses using foreign jurisdictions, there is a problem,” the Nationalist MEP told the Times of Malta.

It puts the very freedom of our media at risk, she said. Malta’s media houses did not always have the resources to fight hugely expensive battles in foreign courts and the threat of expensive civil litigation abroad was used to try intimidate, harass and manipulate.

Earlier this month, Times of Malta editors said they amended some online content after acting on legal advice on “a serious threat to freedom of the press and to the very existence of our organisation.”

“The freedom of the media and freedom of speech is something that must absolutely be protected by the State against unscrupulous actors in whatever way necessary,” Dr Metsola said.

The MEP’s comments follow a conference she organised about media and security on Friday.

Addressing the event, lawyer and university lecturer Antonio Ghio suggested that the Constitution may be the solution to threats to freedom of speech by foreign firms.

Dr Ghio was referring to Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPP), which threaten freedom of speech by making it difficult and costly for the accused to defend themselves and force them to bow their heads.

He told Times of Malta that while the Constitution already protected freedom of speech, there was an ongoing debate on whether this also applied to online participation.

In 2012, a White Paper was published in relation to digital rights, suggesting a number of constitutional amendments. These would have ensured a clear declaration that what applies offline also applies online. A Private Member’s Bill presented by a Nationalist MP in 2014 reflected most of the things contained within the 2012 White Paper, but this was not passed into law.

When it comes to SLAPP, some jurisdictions actually go ahead with the case irrespective of where the plaintiff and the defendant reside or are based. Once a sentence is handed down, the plaintiff could try enforce it in Malta, but our Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure is not fine-tuned to cater for these situations, Dr Ghio noted when contacted yesterday.

“One solution would be to fine-tune this legislation, another one is to have anti-SLAPP legislation in Malta, but personally I believe that the solution lies in making sure that constitutionally these rights are enshrined and enforceable.

“We should ensure constitutional safeguards in the event of attempts at enforcing such judgments here, just as in the case of the death penalty for example. Since this goes against the rights enshrined in our Constitution, if a foreign jurisdiction requested the extradition of an individual to a country where the death penalty was recognised, the individual would be protected.”

Anti-SLAPP legislation in Malta would not work in the case where the threat originates from abroad.  Despite such legislation in some US states, SLAPP letters are actually sent through states that do not have SLAPP protection.

Contacted following the event, Dr Metsola welcomed Dr Ghio’s suggestion of enshrining protection in Malta’s Constitution.

It was definitely something that should be looked at and considered in detail as part of a series of reforms that ensured our legislation kept up with both technology and the trend of the globalisation of litigation, she added.

“We will continue to fight on a local and an EU level for the protection of journalists and to ensure a climate where they can operate without fear or favour.

“As the coordinator of the European People’s Party within the committee responsible in the European Parliament I have always spoken out against the use of legal loopholes to intimidate journalists and will continue to do so,” the MEP said, adding that the PN delegation in the EP, through David Casa, has called for coordinated European action against these SLAPP law suits. Former editor of The Sunday Times of Malta Laurence Grech, another speaker at Dr Metsola’s conference, said the threat was despicable and intended as a very serious threat to the newspaper’s very existence.

Mr Grech, who currently sits on the Allied Newspapers’ board of directors, noted that defence in a US or indeed in any other foreign court would have involved crippling expenses.

“However, my principle is that if a story is true and we are ready to prove it, we should not give in to threats, even of this draconian nature, and stand our ground.

“Whether the newspaper’s owners go along with this reasoning is another matter. Of course the newspaper must allow the aggrieved party to state their side of the case, although I expect this element to have featured in the original story.”

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