EU Parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution to protect journalists and critical voices from abusive lawsuits, otherwise known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), in a vote on Thursday (11 November).
With 444 votes in favour, 48 against, and 75 abstentions, EU lawmakers have agreed on a series of measures to counteract the threat of SLAPP across all 27 countries. SLAPPs are increasingly being used against investigative journalists to financially exhaust them and intimidate them into dropping sensitive stories.
Co-rapporteur Tiemo Wolken said, “We cannot stand by and watch as the rule of law is increasingly threatened, and the freedoms of expression, information, and association are undermined. It is our duty to protect journalists, NGOs and civil society organisations reporting on matters of public interest.”
He added that courts should never be used and abused by rich and powerful individuals or politicians, nor should they be overloaded for personal gain.
The vote comes after a plenary debate on a report authored by Wolken and co-rapporteur Roberta Metsola.
Hailing from Malta, where assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galiza had 47 SLAPPs pending against her at the time of her death, Metsola said, “This cross-party, cross-committee report marks a watershed moment for journalism in the fight against abusive lawsuits. There is no place for abuse of our justice systems – that is the message we sent with our strong vote today.”
In an exclusive quote for EURACTIV, Metsola’s office explained there had been a rise of SLAPPs in the last years. This has accompanied a trend in criminals “shopping” for jurisdictions to file the suit in. Typically, these are jurisdictions that provide favourable laws and come with a high price tag to benefit the person filing.
“In effect, we are seeing individual journalists being faced with a multitude of lawsuits filed against them in foreign jurisdictions with the aim of financially and emotionally draining them.
These lawsuits do not necessarily seek to obtain a favourable outcome as they seek to intimidate journalists into self-censorship. The aim is to silence,” the spokesperson said.
Weaknesses in EU-wide protection
The report and the subsequent vote come from perceived weaknesses in the framework of EU treaties. Furthermore, no member state has passed any specific legislation against SLAPPs. It calls on the Commission to present a package of measures, as well as legislation.
Amongst the recommendations are the creation of an EU directive against SLAPP that would both establish minimum standards and protect victims. An “ambitious legal framework” should also be included in the upcoming Media Freedom Act.
The report also suggests measures to prevent “libel tourism”, rules on early dismissal of abusive cases and sanctions for filing them, safeguards against combined SLAPPs, and EU funds to support victims of SLAPPs and their families.
While acknowledging that the position adopted in Parliament is somewhat ambitious, the rapporteurs think it can “make a real difference in teh life of journalists, NGOs, and civil society.”
“There is the blueprint here for Europe to be a safe space for journalists. The ball is now in the court of the European Commission to take up these recommendations and to set the boundaries on these new measures,” they told EURACTIV.
In June 2020, European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova said the Commission is working on measures to improve the safety of journalists and tackle abusive lawsuits. The so-called ‘anti-SLAPP initiative’ is expected to be adopted by the end of the year, which could include both legislative and non-legislative measures.
“Journalists should spend their time being watchdogs of our democracies, not in fighting abusive lawsuits,” she said at the time.
In Albania, the ruling Socialist Party filed more than 30 defamation suits against journalists and activists in two years. Furthermore, business people regularly use litigation as a way to silence stories. BIRN and two of its journalists were slapped with lawsuits following the publication of investigations into the controversial incinerator deal. More recently, anti-HPP activist Catherine Bohne was sued for defamation by bailiff Eduart Mrishaj in Tropoje after he reportedly refused to enforce a High Court ruling on the suspension of works on two large HPPs on the Valbona River.
Republished with permission from EURACTIV.com