There’s so much that is wrong with Silvio Debono’s attitude at the inquiry yesterday. To begin with, there’s the notion of suing the dead, which the most powerful people in the land, with access to the greatest financial resources, to consultants of every hue, and to expense on their own image and public relations that would be envied by political parties, continue to exploit as some form of right.
If a journalist, or even a polemicist or commenter, is not struck cold by the chilling effect of a threat of a defamation suit, or 19 defamation suits, the idea that those libel suits would be left as a legacy to one’s heirs should one die (or be killed on the line) is so terribly sickening.
Perhaps this is one of those things where it is even more evident that we do not think of journalists as public servants. We think of them as a nuisance that we can intimidate with serial lawsuits and the threat their children would be persecuted should they get away from it by dying.
‘I’m not a vindictive man,’ Silvio Debono told the Daphne inquiry yesterday. Come again? How would you describe a package of 19 lawsuits filed over a single article? Opening a defamation suit to defend a corrupt and rotten deal is vexatious and reprehensible. Doing it 19 times over is nothing short of vile, cruel and a grotesque use of excessive force.
Silvio Debono described Daphne’s writings as an inconvenience as he was getting ready for a bond issue and he didn’t want “mafia” and “corrupt” to come up on Google searches against his name. But that’s exactly what journalists are for, to provide the information potential investors and lenders in a corrupt deal absolutely need to know about so that they spend their money with open eyes. It is the right to that information that Silvio Debono sought to deny them by viciously piling up law suits on Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Yet another case to support the argument that strategic lawsuits are not intended to breach the rights of journalists, though it is they and their families that suffer the first financial consequences. Strategic lawsuits are intended to create silence in place of information. Though politicians do this, it is a favourite tool for big corporates.
Consciousness of SLAPP suits started out with big polluters suing green NGOs like Greenpeace to try to bankrupt them into silence. Malta’s experience has been more prominent with banks like Pilatus and Satabank or their enablers like Henley and Partners. Since the cap on Malta’s libel suits is reasonable, these bullies have resorted to cross border lawsuits to make them hurt.
Chris Cardona had found a crass way of making his libel action against Daphne hurt more, resorting to the never-before-used method of a garnishee order attached to a dispute over reporting he at first claimed was libellous but later implicitly confirmed as correct by quitting the case.
Silvio Debono’s “method” is no less unprecedented, no less crass, no less vindictive and no less intended to inflict the greatest possible pain on Daphne than Chris Cardona’s. There’s nothing in the law that prevents one from suing a journalist 19 times for 19 sentences they wrote in a single article. That’s because no one imagined anyone would think of doing such a thing. And then Silvio Debono and his advisors came along.
What’s to compromise on this? Silvio Debono said he wanted to meet the family in order to settle the matter “amicably”. Amicably, means in friendship, which makes the word utterly inappropriate. This is no act of mercy or a Damascus moment of cold realisation and regret.
This is the application of leverage, not unlike Joseph Muscat’s “offer” to Daphne’s family to withdraw ongoing lawsuits against them if they repudiate their mother and what she wrote. Silvio Debono is looking for the same thing in an amicable solution: getting his 19 libel suits to work for him by forcing Daphne’s family to delete what she had written about him.
This is like the magnanimity of Nero, offering Christians reprieve from being consumed in public by big cats in exchange for renouncing their faith. How positively not vindictive. How merciful.
What Silvio Debono has done to Daphne should rightly be illegal. We have a cap of some €11,000 on the liability from a libel suit but he found a crafty way of multiplying that almost 20 times over. That sort of liability, pending a decision by the court, paralysis anyone financially, certainly anyone earning their keep from journalism. To allow that pain to pass on to children mourning their mother after she was killed on the line is beyond indecent.
Remember that if Daphne were alive should we be able to defend this pile of lawsuits by showing why she thought the St George’s Bay ITS deal was corrupt. She would know what evidence she could use. Her children wouldn’t.
Silvio Debono never wanted things to get that far when he first filed those suits. A maximum penalty of €220,000 is a lot of money to be sure but it would be worth more to Daphne and her family than to him, especially considering that these libel suits were protecting the profits he stands to make from the ITS project. He wanted to put Daphne in a position where she would have to make the stark choice between the risk of financial penury and withdrawing what she said about Silvio Debono even if she knew it to be true.
And now he’s extending that self-interested bullying to Daphne’s heirs who did not actually do any of the writing he is complaining about.
One can only hope the public inquiry sees through Silvio Debono’s “emotions”, ‘amicability’, and ‘willingness to compromise’ and make recommendations for reforms that protect journalists from strategic lawsuits of this nature.
In the meantime we need to fight back by making it clear that this sort of bullying just does not work and it’s a bad idea. So here’s another piece this morning that might come up when one Googles Silvio Debono’s name.
Your right to know is at stake.