Your right to know what’s being done with your economy depends on journalists scrutinising people who are licensed to operate banks here. Support journalism and support the fight against libel tourism and SLAPP lawsuits designed to prevent you from making informed choices for your wellbeing.
SLAPP lawsuits like the one the owner of Satabank filed against me are designed to prevent you from knowing the truth. Don’t let that happen.
There was the sort of predictable schadenfreude on comments boards of the news sites that covered the defamation suit the owner of Satabank opened against me in Bulgaria Saturday. The general vein of the cynics is that it serves me right. I am an obnoxious person and I’m only getting what’s coming to me. Here’s a sample.
There’s something to be said for that argument. I wouldn’t be sued for defamation if I wrote nothing at all.
A Labour Party newspaper cartoon yesterday depicted me as a snake which is the archetypal deceiver, sneak, traitor, smooth talking demon from Genesis to the Jungle Book. In that cartoon I’m shown moving to bite Adrian Delia’s butt.
It’s funny who the Labour Party finds itself sympathising with these days.
Commenters who presumably dislike me because I’m not a supporter of the Labour Party found themselves sympathising with a Bulgarian banker who opened a bank in Malta, was heavily fined for anti-money laundering failures, its operations shut down and the money of its customers frozen for months. The Satabank imbroglio had real victims. Some businesses had to close down letting go of their employees. People lost their jobs.
It’s hard to think why the owner of a bank that effectively shafted its clients would become a folk hero. But in the spirit of the enemy of my enemy is my friend some people rejoice in the harassment and potentially prohibitive expense of the lawsuit I am facing.
These people clearly do not understand how the risk and expense of cross border intimidation by libel tourism does not only impact journalists. The right to freedom of speech is not just a liberty given to journalists (or to bloggers, for those who want to make the distinction pejoratively). The right to free speech incorporates everybody’s right to be informed.
This is not just about governments and their scandals. This is about all actors in a society that demand the trust of people. If you trust your government with power, you want journalists to tell you if they’re abusing it or wasting your money. If you trust your church with the care of orphans, you’ll want to know if some wayward cleric is having his way with vulnerable children. That’s a journalist’s job.
And if you trust your money or your economy to a bank you’ll want to know if they’re using your trust as a front for criminal activities. You have a right to know what they’re doing. And that right cannot be respected and fulfilled if journalists do not have the freedom to report on what is going on behind the scenes.
It is this right that Christo Georgiev wants to chill into silence. Significantly, one important request Christo Georgiev is making to the Bulgarian courts is to force me to delete the article on this blog that mentions him.
Another banker got away with that for a while. Ali Sadr Hasheminejad bullied Maltese websites to remove stories on Pilatus Bank from the online record to avoid lawsuits in the United States.
Ali Sadr wanted to clean his reputation to be able to continue his criminal activities disguised as banking services. Famously, Ali Sadr sued Daphne Caruana Galizia in Arizona. She never knew about the lawsuit which was withdrawn hours after she was killed.
Ali Sadr Hasheminejad and Christo Georgiev had no issues coming to Malta and relating with local authorities to license and operate their banks here. But they both went to different countries to protect their reputation, such as it was, seeking to shut up journalists reporting in Malta with lawsuits in other countries.
Some ask what’s wrong with that? Some time ago Brian Hansford, a self-described journalist working for public TV, criticised all the fuss about libel tourism saying that a journalist that reports the truth should have no problem defending themselves in some other country. It’s easy for him to say so because his journalism does not involve uncovering criminal activities in banks and other corporates that can afford to drag journalists across borders to defend themselves in court.
He wrote to me yesterday expressing solidarity. Which was odd given his position on SLAPP suits. He now tells me that position was written “in different circumstances”. If he’s changed his mind he should say so.
As I see it, it’s bad enough that people who can afford to, use Maltese courts to harass journalists into silence. Some jurisdictions impose a penalty on vexatious defamation suits. Ours does not, so people waste your time dragging you to court having to defend yourself in cases they know from the outset they will lose. The whole point is to exhaust you and force you to give up.
The cross-border lawsuit is the amplified version of that. Bulgaria is not famous for very high penalties for defamation though The Sunday Times yesterday grossly underestimated the monetary risk of this case against me. The fines it quoted refer to criminal libel which this isn’t. Christo Georgiev is asking the court to liquidate damages in a civil suit and the liability to me is much higher than The Sunday Times’s worst-case scenario estimates.
To get to that point I need to recruit legal assistance in Bulgaria. I need translators. I need to travel there all while wasting time not doing my job. And there’s still the near impossibility of summoning witnesses from Malta in order to back up the case in my own defence. For that alone it is virtually impossible to even have a fair trial.
Even knowing I am right is not enough here, no matter what Brian Hansford says about defending defamation cases overseas.
A bill presented in parliament two years ago by Jason Azzopardi to protect journalists from cross-border defamation suits, was rejected by the government precisely because the government benefits from this sort of bullying that others inflict on journalists that annoy them. Having Ali Sadr Hasheminejad and Christo Georgiev harass Maltese journalists in the courts of other countries prevents those journalists from continuing with their job of scrutinising the government. From their point of view, it’s a win-win situation.
If that law had been approved by parliament, I would now be protected from this act of bullying. What’s more, all Maltese journalists – some of whom have done for more incisive and revelatory work on Satabank itself but were not yet selected for this special treatment of a SLAPP lawsuit – would be protected from this very expensive harassment.
Clearly those expressing delight at my plight have no understanding of the implications here. Some mocked others who suggested crowd funding to support my defence might be appropriate. These people argue that I’m supposed to work for free and I’m supposed to carry alone the liability and the risk of defamation suits. It’s my problem alone because I’m a snake. I’m obnoxious. I’m asking for it.
Complaining this is not fair is beside the point. These people contribute to the suppression of their own right to know what’s being done with their economy by those powerful enough to ruin it, like those licensed to operate banks in Malta. That is a far more expensive liability risk than a lawsuit in Varna.
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