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.

Filed Under: corruption, daphne caruana galizia, defamation, free speech, joseph muscat, malta, matthew caruana galizia, panama papers
Companies: facebook


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  1. icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 19 May 2017 @ 1:46pm

    Re: Re: 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?

    My sister's kids could easily shout him down.

    When she takes them on an airline, you can actually hear them from the ground.

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