The parliament has adopted a report on measures to counteract the increasing threat that Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) pose to journalists, NGOs and civil society in Europe.
The report was adopted on Thursday (11 November) with an overwhelming majority - 444 votes in favour, 48 against and 75 abstentions. SLAPPs are frivolous legal actions based on exaggerated and often abusive claims, aiming to intimidate and professionally discredit their targets, with the ultimate objective of blackmailing and silencing them.
“We cannot stand by and watch as the rule of law is increasingly threatened, and the freedoms of expression, information and association are undermined,” said German MEP Tiemo Wölken (S&D), co-rapporteur in the LIBE committee. “Our courts should never be a playground for rich and powerful individuals, companies or politicians, nor should they be overloaded or abused for personal gain.”
According to the report, journalists and media actors in Europe and abroad are increasingly being threatened, physically attacked and assassinated because of their work, particularly when it focuses on the misuse of power, corruption, fundamental rights violations and criminal activities.
The report refers to many cases throughout the Union, such as the chilling case of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was reportedly facing 47 civil and criminal defamation lawsuits (resulting in the freezing of her assets) across multiple jurisdictions on the day of her assassination on 16 October 2017.
A prize in her memory was awarded in October by the Parliament to the journalists from the Pegasus Project coordinated by the Forbidden Stories Consortium.
Victims of SLAPPs are most commonly sued for expressing critical views on the behaviour, or denouncing the wrongdoing, of private individuals and entities as well as of public officials, public bodies and publicly controlled entities, through online or offline forms of expression, or in retaliation for their involvement in campaigns, court cases, actions or protests.
Lack of legislation
Currently there is no direct legislation in any member state on SLAPPs. This together with often ambiguous and broad national defamation provisions, as well as harsh penalties, including of a criminal nature, has significantly contributed to the growth in the number of these abusive lawsuits and the subsequent intimidation of their target.
MEPs worry about the effect of SLAAPs on EU values, the internal market and the EU justice system and highlight the frequent imbalance of power and resources between claimants and defendants, which undermines the right to a fair trial.
Among others, the Parliament urges the Commission to address the seriousness of SLAPPs brought through criminal proceedings by presenting a proposal for measures to ensure that defamation, libel and slander, which constitute criminal offences in most member states, cannot be used for SLAPPs through public or private prosecution.
To curtail the threat of SLAAPs, they propose an EU directive against SLAPPs establishing minimum standards, which should protect victims while preventing and sanctioning the misuse of anti-SLAPP measures. Claimants should face sanctions if they fail to justify in what way their action is not abusive.
They also propose the prevention of ‘libel tourism’ or ‘forum shopping’ – where claimants choose to file their actions in the most favourable jurisdiction – through uniform and predictable defamation rules. There should be rules on early dismissal by the courts so that abusive lawsuits can be stopped quickly based on objective criteria.
How does SLAAP differ from defamation?
SLAPPs are commonly characterised by claims that lack any legal merit and are manifestly unfounded, according to the resolution.
Defamation is defined as false statements that unjustly causes harm to someone’s reputation. A majority of EU member states still maintain criminal defamation legislation or even insult laws that restrict freedom of expression. Such laws are typical in dictatorships where they are used to silence critical reporting and opinions against the regime.
The parliament underlined in its resolution that the Council of Europe and OSCE have called for the decriminalisation of defamation. A Commission spokesperson told The Brussels Times that it is up to the member states to decide on their approach on this issue as there is no EU legislation in this area at this stage. Best European practice is also missing.
The European Commission has launched a public consultation to feed into an upcoming initiative to tackle abusive lawsuits filed against journalists and rights defenders. The consultation period runs until January 2022. The Commission is expected to present a European Media Freedom Act in 2022, aimed to safeguard the independence and pluralism of media.
The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (Ecpmf) has reported an increase in different kinds of incidents in the EU where journalists have been harassed or physically attacked in the EU, in particular in Germany and in connection with demonstrations during the coronavirus crisis.
The situation is the Western Balkans, however, is worse. According the European Commission’s recent 2021 enlargement report there was limited or no progress overall in the candidate countries as regards Freedom of expression, media freedom and pluralism. Threats, intimidation and violence against journalists as well as derogatory remarks by public officials continue to cause serious concern.
The Brussels Times