SLAPP threatens democracy, not just journalism

SLAPP is not just a threat to the press, it is also a legal tool used by the powerful and moneyed interests – chiefly corporations and private multinationals and other personalities of means – to effectively quash the democratising power of journalism

Even in a climate where press law reforms are planned to safeguard Maltese journalism against SLAPP intimidation, the language and the practice itself is still continuing undeterred, in Malta.

An acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, SLAPP refers to a type of litigation that is strategically designed to stifle freedom of expression, at the cost of the public’s right to know.  SLAPP lawsuits are generally filed by powerful corporations against journalists and activists, to prevent the publishing of information that is in the public interest; but harmful to their own reputation. As such, the recent action taken by Steward Health Care International (SHCI) – the private corporation that manages three of Malta’s State-owned hospitals – against MaltaToday’s managing editor Matthew Vella, ticks all the right boxes to be defined as a classic case of SLAPP intimidation.

Not only did Steward respond to a perfectly legitimate journalistic investigation, into its ownership structure, by threatening the newspaper with prohibitively-expensive legal action, but it even went a step further, by allegedly writing a letter to the Prime Minister, demanding a criminal investigation into Matthew Vella himself.

That is taking intimidation slightly too far, even by the standards this newspaper has grown accustomed to in the past. As Vella himself put it: “That a company whose operations are financed by the Maltese taxpayer, demands an EU government to ‘investigate’ a journalist for reporting allegations about its ownership on the internet and social media, is not unheard of. But such aggression is still flabbergasting in the 21st century. In this climate, the Maltese press is not safe from belligerence of such companies.”

More damningly still, Steward also levelled some very serious allegations at Vella: accusing the MaltaToday editor of acting in collusion with a short-seller – Viceroy Research – and that “the criminal intent of this smear campaign on SHCI is to manipulate and drive down the stock price of Medical Properties Trust (MPT) Inc, a NYSE-listed real estate investment trust, in a coordinated campaign akin to securities fraud.”

Vella denies these charges: describing them as “an unprecedented, malicious attempt at arm-twisting the Maltese press”. As such, they also deflect from the real purpose of MaltaToday’s report on the Viceroy research on Steward’s company filings, detailing its ownership struture, with obvious ramifications for the Maltese taxpaying public, which has an undeniable interest (and right) to know exactly how this concession is being administered; and by whom.

This is especially significant, when viewed in the context of a concession that was already mired in controversy, to begin with; and when the taxpaying public is also confronted with the disastrous consequences of the privatisation of Malta’s hospitals, with healthcare now in the hands of American real estate speculators, whose business is merely to collect rent from the various medical groups involved. Surely, that cannot be compared to the National Health Service that is so cherished in Malta.

Meanwhile, the promise of a ‘lucrative health tourism model’ – that, back in 2015, was supposed to eventually finance the Vitals takeover – seems to have never materialised; which means that it is now the State, that is the Maltese taxpayer, that funds the normal hospital operations carried out by Steward International, in Maltese hospitals.

In this case, then, it is patently obvious that – far from exposing any ‘sinister international conspiracies, involving MaltaToday journalists’ – Steward is simply exerting its considerable muscle, in ongoing efforts to stifle legitimate investigation into its own operations.

But while the lengths to which it has now gone, to browbeat this newspaper into silence, have exceeded all previous boundaries; the fact remains that Steward’s shenanigans are clearly not convincing anyone.

This is partly down to the fact that the Maltese media, in its broader sense, has so far responded to such efforts with all the contempt they deserve. Here, a word of gratitude must go out to all the journalists and media organisations, activists, readers, politicians and others, who showed private and public support for Matthew Vella, in statements, actions, and social media messages.

Apart from being a welcome note of solidarity, in a profession that is ultimately beset by the same threats and challenges: it also reinforces the importance of an anti-SLAPP culture, to keep at bay the vultures that attempt to cow journalists into submission, with their preposterous threats and bullying.

But it is equally important that Malta cultivates a political culture that defends the free press; even for the sake of defending itself. That is why it has to be the Prime Minister of Malta himself that must send out a strong message that his administration will not tolerate any SLAPP threats to the country’s press.

SLAPP is, after all, not just a threat to the press; it is also a legal tool used by the powerful and moneyed interests – chiefly corporations and private multinationals and other personalities of means – to effectively quash the democratising power of journalism.

Hence journalism’s essential quality as a tool for democracy: by serving the public’s right to know, journalism will more often than not fall on the opposite side of those who desire power to further their own, profiteering interests.