G Farrugia Calleja: Slap down SLAPPs

G Farrugia Calleja: Slap down SLAPPs

By George Farrugia Calleja

So it seems that the squeaky clean (bite me) gentlemen behind Pilatus Bank, perceived by so many as ‘The Gang’s personal money box and laundromat, had filed suit against Daphne Caruana Galizia in some God-forsaken legal backwater in America.

Friends of mine who practise law (they’ll get it right with enough practice) tell me that the Yanks have a concept of damages that is driven by the fact that American lawyers often work for a percentage of the dough they can rake in for their clients.

This sometimes leads to a situation where unscrupulous plaintiffs (take a bow, Pilatus) can engage a shyster or two who will bust a gut to get them the highest damages pay-out possible, which when you’re dealing with a bunch of red-necks presided over by a supporter of Donald Trump can run into many dollars.

Defendants, on the other hand, have to engage decent lawyers to fight the case and in jurisdictions like the States (or London, for that matter, let’s not forget that Mischon’s had already broken a lance or two over Daphne on behalf of Joseph Muscat’s principals in the passport-flogging business) decent lawyers don’t come cheap.

Not even remotely cheap, meaning that most Maltese media houses, and even more so individual bloggers, can’t realistically defend their case, although the case should actually be tossed out in short order in a decent court.

People like Pilatus and Henley & Partners know this full well, which is why they chuck these SLAPP-suits around with such gay abandon.

Behaviour like this in a schoolyard would be called ‘bullying’ and would normally be met with contempt on the part of all good men and true, a sentiment which is lost on Mischon de Reya, for all their posing that they used to represent Princess Diana.

The reason why these vindictive – if basically worthless – law-suits are so dangerous is that under the law as it stands, judgements obtained in foreign jurisdictions are enforceable in Malta unless there’s a legal reason why they shouldn’t be. And if you don’t defend a case, you’ll get stung for damages, it need hardly be said.

A quick chat with a conveniently positioned legal beagle enlightened me that one of the few reasons why a judgement would not be enforced is if it is contrary to the ‘public policy’ of Malta. A quick read of the amendments to the law proposed by Jason Azzopardi shows that they are designed with surgical precision to invoke precisely this exception, rendering judgements against Malta-based media houses un-enforceable on the grounds of public policy.

The problem, it need hardly be said, is that despite Joseph Muscat’s Government’s fine words about press freedom, the rule of law and assorted other slogans, they haven’t seen fit to give their support to the amendments. And no-one is really holding their breath waiting, either.

Deputy MLP Leader (and yes, I know MLP would be anachronistic were it not for the fact that this leopard hasn’t changed its spots) Chris Fearne, asked about this, mumbled something peculiar about the Government having to see if the amendments impinged on Malta’s international obligations.

Mumble, mumble. Owen Bonnici didn’t enlighten us much, either.

To this lick-spittle neo-colonialist piece of prevarication, all I can say is, go on, pull the other one, it jingles. Malta – the State – has obligations towards its citizens, us, that far supersede any spurious ‘international obligations’ invoked by the craven in order to allow our media to continue to be bullied.

Our fundamental freedoms far outweigh the international obligations that so trouble Dr Fearne. His reluctance to commit his party to supporting measures that enhance our freedom from corrupt and vicious bullying betrays a mind-set that salivates after increased control of the media.

The Attorney-General was seen on Sunday at a screening of ‘The Post’, where the peculiar (to the MLP and its fellow-travellers, anyway) notion that the media is there in service to the governed and not the governors is the leitmotif of an excellent movie.

I wonder whether he’s advised his client of this.