EU Parliament to counter lawsuits designed to silence journalists, NGOs

Critics say the abuse of legal proceedings against journalists and NGOs is increasingly widespread across all EU countries. [Jorm S/Shutterstock]

The European Parliament’s committees dealing with legal affairs (JURI), civil liberties and home affairs (LIBE) met on Tuesday (11 May) to prepare a report on combating lawsuits aimed at intimidating journalists and civil society organisations in the EU. EURACTIV France reports.

“We will support you,” MEP and co-rapporteur of the forthcoming “anti-SLAPP” report Roberta Metsola (EPP, Malta) promised the press and NGOs.

The acronym SLAPP, which stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation” refers to lawsuits designed to silence journalists or civil society activists in the public debate and which often involve private interests.

“The aim of [these proceedings] is not to win, but to silence,” said Metsola, noting that they enable “those with the means” to force journalists to choose between putting a stop “to reporting the facts or facing a long and expensive trial”. A threat that can also lead to self-censorship.

According to the report’s second co-rapporteur, MEP Tiemo Wölken (S&D, Germany), “victims of ‘SLAPPS’ are sued for exercising their fundamental rights.”

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To combat this, Wölken is advocating a holistic approach aimed at preserving freedom of expression and information, which he called “key elements of the rule of law”.

The report calls for a European directive to establish standards across the bloc, the creation of a fund to help victims defend themselves, along with an awareness-raising campaign on the issue aimed at judges and the general public.

Costela is also calling for judges to be allowed to make pre-emptive rulings to cut clearly malicious legal proceedings short and establish a one-stop-shop to help journalists in their grievances.

“There should be sanctions for those who abuse defamation laws,” the MEP added.

In a resolution adopted by EU lawmakers on 25 November, the European Parliament reiterated “its continued deep concern about the state of media freedom within the EU in the context of the abuses and attacks still being perpetrated against journalists and media workers in some Member States because of their work.”

In the resolution, MEPs also “strongly reiterated its call on the Commission” to present a legislative proposal “establishing minimum standards against SLAPP practices across the EU”.

In its Action Plan for European Democracy, the executive announced in December that it would introduce an “initiative to curb the abusive use of lawsuits against public participation” as part of its ambition to strengthen media freedom and pluralism.

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A global threat

The abuse of legal proceedings is increasingly widespread across all EU countries, said Wölken.

The practice has gained ground also in France. In 2018, journalists and NGOs writing in French daily Le Monde complained of experiencing judicial intimidation “when they take an interest in the activities of the Bolloré group, particularly in Africa.”

A few weeks later, Reporters Without Borders called on the French government to introduce a law to combat SLAPP proceedings.

“All too often, those who tell the truth are exposed to heavy fines or are sued by multinationals that want to silence them. This judicial intimidation must stop. The European Union must put an end to these unacceptable practices and defend our right to freedom of expression,” Greenpeace urged in August.

At the end of April, the NGO Case (Coalition Against SLAPPS in Europe) launched a “European SLAPP Contest“, aimed at ranking the biggest “procedure addicts” or other “bullies” of the year.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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