SLAPPs: MEPs discuss how to curb chilling effect of lawsuits against journalists and NGOs 

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The Legal Affairs and Civil Liberties committees exchanged views with VP Jourová and experts on how to tackle abusive litigation practices in the EU.

A hearing was held on Thursday to set the ground for Parliament’s anti-SLAPPs report (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), which is being prepared jointly by the Committees on Legal Affairs and Civil Liberties. MEPs heard from Commission VP for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová, who reiterated that this year the Commission will come forward with initiative to protect journalists.

Paulina Milewska (Anti-SLAPP programme researcher, ECPMF) presented recent high-profile strategic lawsuits against European journalists, highlighting the distressing situation of freelancers and the importance of combatting the stigma that follows defamation lawsuits. Matthew Caruana Galizia (Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation) explained the vital role NGOs play in supporting victims financially, which was also the case with his family fighting more than 40 cases after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. He also stressed the need for long-term protection through an anti-SLAPP Directive.

The Swedish financial journalist Annelie Östlund (Realtid) presented the financial and psychological effects of her experience from a SLAPP lawsuit against her in the UK. Dr Justin Borg-Barthet (Senior Lecturer, University of Aberdeen) outlined the existing gaps in EU legislation and suggested solutions and deterrent measures, early dismissal, and strong internal market protection rules. Julie Majerczak (Reporters Without Borders) focused on the demands of more than 100 watchdogs for legislation to stop SLAPPs, and for effective support to victims.

MEPs who took the floor focused on hard and soft measures that would help curb the worrying trend across the member states and on existing best practices worldwide. Speakers were interested in the cross-border aspects of these cases and solutions to fight “forum shopping”. In anticipation of the Commission’s proposal, MEPs highlighted the need for any future anti-SLAPP instruments to extend to civil society.

Any future package of legislative and non-legislative measures must also effectively support victims and their families, increase public awareness, and help train judges who handle such cases without over-burdening judicial systems, they underlined. Measures should empower journalists to speak the truth and continue informing the public, taking into account the different national media landscapes and legal systems, while ensuring that citizens have the right to be correctly informed, and that the rules will not be abused by some parties, stressed some members.

If you missed the hearing, you can watch a recording here.

Background

The first joint committee discussion on the new anti-SLAPP report took place on 11 May. Parliament has consistently called on the Commission to propose and apply several policies to safeguard media pluralism and journalists. Since 2018, MEPs have been asking for a specific legislative proposal against SLAPP to protect independent European media and civil society.

On 25 November 2020, the EP adopted a resolution, in which MEPs condemn the use of SLAPPs to silence or intimidate investigative journalists and outlets, and to create a climate of fear. In the report, SLAPPs are described as a continued practice used to scare journalists into halting investigations into corruption and other matters of public interest.