Malta's Prime Minister Sues Panama Papers Journalist For Defamation; Gets Facebook To Delete His Reporting

from the not-cool dept

You recall, of course, the Panama Papers? The massive leak of documents about offshore shell companies last year, that a large coalition of reporters worked on for many months before releasing a bunch of stories at the same time. The documents were leaked from a law firm, and highlighted more than a few cases of what appeared to be questionable activity by the rich and powerful in moving money around in offshore accounts. Apparently the subject of one such story, Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, wasn’t happy that he and some of his colleagues were mentioned in some of the reporting on this, and filed a defamation case against Matthew Caruana Galizia, the reporter who wrote up some stories, using the Panama Papers, arguing that Muscat and his chief of staff were involved in a scheme to get kickbacks on the sale of Maltese passports.

Caruana Galizia, who is a journalist at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and who coordinated the mass reporting effort on the Panama Papers (and who won a Pulitzer Prize as part of that), had posted those stories to his Facebook page. In addition to facing this defamation lawsuit, Caruana Galizia has also noted that Facebook has deleted some of his posts and locked him out of his account temporarily. It would appear that someone has complained to Facebook about those posts, claiming they were terms of service violations. Once again, this should be a reminder of the problem of relying on someone else’s platform for posting your stories, as they get to make up the rules for what’s allowed.

But there are two larger issues here: First, this appears to be a classic SLAPP-style lawsuit, in which reporters are being sued as an attempt to chill free speech on reporting that the subject doesn’t like. I’m no expert in Maltese defamation law, but it does appear that there has been a lot of concern about abuse of Maltese defamation law to intimidate reporters and chill speech (amusingly, that article focuses on Daphne Caruana Galizia who has been sued a few times for defamation, and who appears to be Matthew’s very proud mother). There have also been attempts to update defamation law in Malta, but there appears to be nothing akin to a an anti-SLAPP provision. Indeed, it’s not even clear if there’s a “truth” defense.

The interview with Daphne Caruana Galizia is quite detailed in how officials in Malta use defamation laws to chill the free speech of journalists:

The fees and court expenses for filing a civil suit for libel are low and therefore not a bar to frivolous cases. There is no penalty to be paid by those who file cases unnecessarily, even if they eventually lose the case. Meanwhile, the journalist who has been sued has to pay a lawyer to defend him/her, pay fees to file a formal response to the suit, and go to many court hearings over the course of several years. Even if the journalist is cleared of libel, he or she has still paid a heavy price in terms of stress, time wasted and money spent.

Criminal defamation cases are even worse. In this case, there is really no bar. The politician or other public person who feels himself to have been libelled will file a formal request for the police to prosecute the journalist, and the police are obliged to comply as they cannot ignore a formal request. The complainant pays nothing, as this is a police prosecution and not a civil suit. Meanwhile, the journalist must pay lawyers to defend him/herself and be present at every single court hearing as required under Maltese law. The stress is great. Though the government has pledged itself to repeal the criminal defamation law, it has not.

And now her son gets to experience that terrible process as well.

The other issue is Facebook’s decision to take down the posts and lock Matthew out of his account. That’s… bad. Yes, it’s a private platform and has the right to make these kinds of decisions, but if Facebook wants to position itself as a platform for free speech and communication around the globe, it needs to stand up for the rights of the people using the platform, especially when they’re doing investigative reporting, backed up by evidence, and speaking truth to power. Unfortunately, in this instance, it failed to do that, and is, instead, punishing the journalist. That’s a shame.

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Comments on “Malta's Prime Minister Sues Panama Papers Journalist For Defamation; Gets Facebook To Delete His Reporting”

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John Snape (profile) says:

The limit?

I know the writers here at Techdirt, and other places, think it’s okay to defame politicians, since they are public figures and whatever anyone says about them is allowed. I’m wondering what the limit is, though.

How would you define it? I know in this story the politician was angry that he and his colleagues were characterized as receiving kickbacks, an as-yet unproven charge (as far as I know). Is claiming a politician committed a specific crime okay, even if there is no evidence beyond speculation?

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: The limit?

I know the writers here at Techdirt, and other places, think it’s okay to defame politicians,

Actually this story does a good job of disproving your petty little accusation.

The Techdirt story could have mentioned that the defamation lawsuits against Daphne Caruana Galizia were over her reporting that the Maltese Economy minister and his consultant visited a brothel in Germany while on government business. It’s in the source story.

Many mainstream media outlets would have mentioned it. It’s the sort of titillating detail that grabs readers.

But it wasn’t relevant to the story, and might have been spreading a possibly unproven claim. So it was left out of the story. Very commendable.

Also commendable: Speaking truth to power and reporting on government corruption. Even when those like you anonymously try to redefine it as defamation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The limit?

Actually John Snape makes a really good point. Things arent always that simple. Malta has a two party system and they’re waging a massive information war against each other mostly spearheaded by 2 bloggers.

The opposition is claiming massive government corruption while the government is claiming the opposition is lying and destroying Malta’s reputation just to win political points.

Now as for proof most of it is still circumstantial and unfortunately it looks like we’re going to have to elect a government based on whom people decide to believe, essentially the best information war is going to win which is really scary because whoever is being dishonest here they’re really despicable.

Let me provide an example close at home, this article. Essentially from my understanding (and getting an objective understanding is really hard here as essentially all news papers are partisan) Matthew posted a number of posts. Some where facts, like the fact the prime minister chief of staff had a secret company in panama (exposed by the panama papers), then there was a 2nd layer, allegations that this same chief of staff received kick backs which is being investigated and then the 3rd layer would be the subject of the defamation lawsuit which is apparently Matthew suggesting the prime minister was involved in these same kickbacks apparently offering no proof (I did not read the facebook post in question and unfortunately the Streisand effect didnt take root here)

Now is it right to sue someone for posting speculation? as someone who loves freedom of speech I’d say definitely no but one problem here is if you dont sue for defamation people take it as an admission of guilt. Secondly there has to be limits, I am no journalist but I do understand sometimes you can take a story only so far before having to speculate in order to fill in the blanks and thats totally fine but the problem here it seems in Malta both parties and their media are mass producing as much news as possible without bothering to fact check before publishing and that to me turns journalism into a mud slinging contest and that in my opinion turns something thats essential into something thats useless.

Disclaimer I only focused on Matthew here because he is the subject of the article, The same applies to a lot more people on both sides here. I am not trying to compound the problem by suggesting he is right or wrong in anyway. I am only expressing my believe there is a darkside to freedom of expression and that people especially journalists should take it a lot more seriously then they sometimes seem to do. There are a lot of fine lines here. Its a fine line between character assassination and exposing corruption. There is a fine line between informing people and deceiving them etc..

I love freedom of expression because I believe people should have all the facts and be able to make up their own minds. I love freedom of expression because everyone’s opinion has value even if they may not agree with yours. What I am seeing here however is people using freedom of expression to distort, push an agenda and forcing an opinion. I dont know if its being done in malicious way or simply because we’ve gotten to a point where people are afraid that its not what is right that will win at the end but whoever makes the most noise. Regardless while I was always against any form of free speech limitations I am starting to wonder if actually limiting free speech in reasonable ways may be something essential to protecting free speech as convoluted as that may seem.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: The limit?

I assure you there is no way you can limit free speech in reasonable ways.

As for your two-party system perhaps a switch to proportional representation would resolve the problem.

I understand your concerns; people with a firehose can hijack the narrative while people with a watering can can’t get their own message across. However, it is up to the public to decide to listen to the other side’s point of view. My personal rule of thumb: the more histrionic the allegations, the less attention I pay to them. As an Irish woman I naturally side with the underdog so if someone’s getting hammered, that’s who I sympathise with. Nobody likes being mobbed.

People, not their freedoms, are the problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The limit?

I know there is no way to limit free speech in reasonable ways, and at my core i wouldnt want that anyway some problems just have no solution I guess.

Just a small clarification though the issue I mention is not one of bandwidth, that is an issue but like you said people can get around that by making sure they listen to both sides. The problem I mention is one of information manipulation as well as information shaping either incidentally or on purpose.

Things like mud slinging / character assassinations in most cases its speculation masqueraded as facts. Then there is the other side that does essentially the same thing but in reverse like labeling all criticism as hate or selfish attempts to win political points at the expense of everyone else. Essentially politics over here often look like two young children fighting in a professional way. Most of that is fueled by free speech in that there is essentially no penalty (there are defamation laws of course but it takes years for courts to sort it out and penalty is laughable… much cheaper than paying for an advert and way more effective) Its such a huge mess that even I myself whom I consider a bit more analytical then the average person wouldn’t even know where to start to sort it all out. there is just no way to know who’s telling the truth and who’s lying (partly because likely they’re both doing a bit of both)

I may not be expressing myself correctly but in a nutshell what I am trying to say is there is a very dark side to free speech. The above is not just simply about making a choice it also creates hate and division. Not just that but it also creates social classes with each side believing the other side must lack intellectual capacity for believing any different.

I honestly dont know, whats happening right now is making me question a lot of my believes.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The limit?

I had a quick scan of the Profumo scandal, and while interesting isn’t part of the point I was trying (obviously badly) to make.

The point I was trying to make is that brothels, and hence visiting one, is perfectly legal in Germany. Therefore there should have been no scandal surrounding partaking of a perfectly legal activity. No more than doing any other legal activity such as the examples I gave.

I could see scandal in the same things as with any of the other activities – improperly charging the activity to government expense accounts for example. But that would apply to going to the opera or a football match as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 The limit?

Malta is an overly religious country, the reason why this was a story is simply because it will drive some voters away from him due to some of this voters might find this an objectionable activity. Its essentially character assassination which in this country its like the basis of politics. Unfortunately over here rather then having parties try to convince you to vote for them on the basis of their electoral manifesto and what they plan to accomplish should they be in government, 90% of what parties do here is actually to convince you why it would be a bad idea to vote for the other guy.

Fun fact, in your original post you actually asked if it would also make news should a minister visit a bar. Answer is not only would it make news it would actually be a hotly debated argument in parliament unfortunately.

Anonymous Coward says:

So... Blame Facebook is OKAY if it doesn't meet YOUR standard of supporting users? It should spend big for lawyers, automatically taking the user's side?

I can’t see any flaws to that notion.

By golly, you make me defend Facebook! — IT SIMPLY CAN’T judge whether every user’s post is accurate and should be defended. Further, Section 230 means it’s not liable for postings. So long as Facebook is a platform and not a partisan, deletes when DMCA’d, even I think it’s not at all obligated. — EVEN ME.

Sheesh. You’re good at proposing others spend money to support your BIASES. Here you have NO idea whether allegations are true. This could be a hit-piece on innocent functionary, for all you know.

The “Pulitzer Prize” signifies no legitimacy to me: that too is now just a Big Media fake, manipulated by globalists like the “Nobel Prize”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So... Blame Facebook is OKAY if it doesn't meet YOUR standard of supporting users? It should spend big for lawyers, automatically taking the user's side?

Whoa! An unprecedented fourth posting from this Tor address! We’ll see if this fifth goes… I hope that Techdirt has quit censoring!

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: So... Blame Facebook is OKAY if it doesn't meet YOUR standard of supporting users? It should spend big for lawyers, automatically taking the user's side?

The "Pulitzer Prize" signifies no legitimacy to me: that too is now just a Big Media fake, manipulated by globalists like the "Nobel Prize".

Do you do kid’s parties?

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: So... Blame Facebook is OKAY if it doesn't meet YOUR standard of supporting users? It should spend big for lawyers, automatically taking the user's side?

The DMCA has what to do with this? Nothing. Supporting a bias? Non sequitur. Taking down every post someone doesn’t like is bad business when you claim to be a social media and communications outfit. Loudly.

But writing articles from facts gathered is defamation. OK cool then.

ECA (profile) says:

Comments to this..

Truth and proving BOTH SIDES..
Why is this a problem?

I wonder what it would take to SUE in reverse..
Get enough people to Back a complaint, and Arrest the politician..GET THEM to defend themselves..
LET THEM show there was no WRONG doing in the course of their Investments..(LOL, showing that they EARNED every Cent they invested, while working for the PEOPLE)

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