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. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 May 2017 @ 2:58am

    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.

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