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Frivolous Lawsuits Against Investigative Reporting Challenged

Folks caught in dodgy deeds really hate nosy reporters connecting the dots. The publicís interest is tweaked; prosecutors, sometimes, to follow. Miscreants, though, have many tools to ward-off media intrusion. Those who run in dark circles choose bats, bombs or worse. If an aura of respectably is more important others choose lawsuits.

bulliesSeveral European Parliament members (MEPs) formally asked European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans to draft a directive ending the venal practice of filing lawsuits aimed at discouraging investigative reporting, popular among the corrupt and corruptible. This particular abuse of legal process is called strategic lawsuits against public participation, SLAPP for short. The MEPs asked for an EU Anti-SLAPP Directive in January and spoke of it again last week (February 19).

Broadly SLAPP lawsuits are brought to censor or intimidate participants in a public debate. The legal term has been used since the 1980s, typically related to frivolous defamation or libel litigation, but the practice has a deep history, particularly where English Common Law spread to the colonies. Hence, SLAPPs are common in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, India and Pakistan, though Australia, some US States and Canadian Provinces have enacted Anti-SLAPP legislation attempting to curb the practice.

Widely-reported document leaks enabled by marvellous technology have led to painful embarrassment, loss of position and, occasionally, prosecutions involving entities or individuals caught with hands where they shouldn’t have been. The Panama Papers released by a still anonymous source to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung investigative reporter Bastian Obermayer in 2015 detailed wide-ranging activities of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, including links to money laundering. After a year of verifications, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published it all in 2016 with many members pursuing separate investigations. Mossack Fonseca sent a cease and desist order to the ICIJ, which it ignored.

Powerful people named or connected to the Panama Papers revelations flipped out. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, at first, took great pains to say the reporting “haven’t found anything” connecting him or his government to corrupt practices, noted McClatchy (April 25, 2016). Low and behold; his name and others in his entourage popped up. He then named ICIJ affiliated journalists, with photographs, which his supporters used to harass as “mercenaries” and “corrupt press.” Reporters in Venezuela and Hong Kong lost their jobs. Finland’s tax authority made noises about raiding homes of participating reporters to seize documents. They gave up that idea after attorneys for public broadcaster YLE filed a lawsuit.

Spanish media house Grupo Prisa, owner of daily newspaper El Pais and national radio network Cadena Ser, filed a €8.2 million unfair competition lawsuit against Titania Compañía Editorial, publisher of daily newspaper El Confidencial. Grupo Prisa chief executive Juan Luis Cebrian was exposed in the Panama Papers leak, published by El Confidencial, with a business relationship with Spanish-Iranian oil company owner Massoud Zandi. Last November Sr. Cebrian announced his departure from Grupo Prisa.

Lawsuits were not the only threats. Not long after Turkish daily Cumhuriyet published Panama Papers details, construction company owner Mehmet Cengiz phoned the newsroom, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung (July 6, 2016). "You put my face on the front page, have you no shame? I will fight you … you sons of bitches, don't make a killer out of me.” The number of media workers jailed in Turkey in the last year and a half surpasses 150.

The spotlight of investigative reporting shown brightly on Malta-headquartered Pilatus Bank. The banks principal owner and several clients were not pleased to be connected to dodgy financial transactions detailed in the Panama Papers and earlier investigations. The bank and its affiliates filed 19 lawsuits against Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

One was filed in the US state of Arizona. Venue shopping and libel tourism are popular legal tactics. Mrs. Caruana Galizia participated with ICIJ connecting Maltese dots in the Panama Papers, which led to the top levels of government and business. Her financial assets were garnished.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in a car-bombing October 16, 2017.

“By threatening and bullying the press, Pilatus Bank have succeeded in turning a local issue into an international one,” said Malta MEP David Casa in statement asking for the Anti-SLAPP Directive (February 14). “The press is the fourth estate, an essential pillar of our democracies. We must be uncompromising and unwavering in ensuring the press is protected and unrelenting in countering practices that seek to undermine it. Pilatus Bank… should by now be aware that any attempt to harass the Maltese press will be met with the wrath of the European Parliament."

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