The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner has urged Malta to drop defamation cases against slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
In a letter made public on Thursday but written on September 12, Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic wrote to Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat about "over 40 civil and criminal defamation suits" that were pending against Galizia when she was killed in October 2017, aged 53.
"While the criminal defamation suits were closed, I note that under Maltese law, the plaintiff can decide whether to continue to pursue a civil suit against the defendant's estate," she wrote.
"I have been informed that, as a result, some 30 civil defamation claims continue posthumumously against the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia."
Mijatovic is concerned that Caruana Galizia's heirs could be expected to reveal information on her journalistic work and sources which would not only be "an excessive and very complex burden" on them but also constitute "an undue interference with the right to protection of journalistic sources".
She also said that as many of the defamation claims were lodged by public officials — including the prime minister — continuing them "is not only perceived as an intimidation of a family faced with the loss of their loved one but also raises questions regarding the Maltese authorities' commitment to finding and bringing the masterminds of this horrendous crime to justice."
Muscat replied to the Commissioner, reiterating that he is ready to drop his case against Caruana Galizia's family provided they make a public statement to accept the findings of the Egrant Inquiry.
"The independent Inquiry, presided over by a Magistrate, exonerated me and my family from very serious accusations levelled against us by Ms Caruana Galizia and found that the documents that were supposed to prove wrongdoing were forged," he said.
He also dismissed criticism that the island nation's Media and Defamation Act — which came into effect in May 2018 — placed the burden of proof on respondents, describing it as "progressive and forward looking."
Muscat also argued that the abolition of a civil libel case without compensation upon the death of a defendant would raise issues to "the right to a fair trial under the European Convention on Human Rights."
"This in all effect means that the Government cannot interfere in, abolish or truncate civil actions started by third parties and private citizens against the heirs of a deceased journalist who would have accepted the inheritance," he wrote.
Often described by her supporters as a "one-woman WikiLeaks", the self-published journalist focused her investigative reporting on allegations of government corruption, organised crime and money-laundering and had been under police protection for seven years.
Three men were charged in December 2017 in connection with her murder but have yet to face trial. A probe to determine who might have been behind the attack has stalled.