Index on Censorship – a campaigning publishing organisation for freedom of expression – has launched a campaign urging journalists around the world to speak out when threatened with vexatious international lawsuits.
While supporting calls by MEPs for a new EU directive to tackle SLAPPs, Index on Censorship said it “believes that by encouraging journalists and media outlets to talk more openly about these threats, we can begin to put an end to the use of these vexatious lawsuits that threaten democracy.
Last week the Maltese government slapped down amendments to the new media law which would have provided further protection to Maltese journalists who have been on the receiving end of a number of legal threats by Pilatus Bank and Henley and Partners.
While the former sued Daphne Caruana Galizia for $40 million in the US (only to drop the case following her murder), the latter threatened The Shift News with legal action abroad and stated that the letter was not to be made public. The Shift refused to remove the article and published the threat received.
Index on Censorship said SLAPP suits “are a particular problem for independent media outlets and other small organisations. They are financially draining and can take years to process. Faced with the threat of a lengthy litigation battle and expensive legal fees, many who receive SLAPPs are simply forced into silence.”
As part of its work on media freedom, Index on Censorship aims at raising awareness among journalists and activists about the increasing use of legal threats as a means of silencing critics and investigative reporting.
The organisations said SLAPPs are used by big business and corrupt politicians to silence journalists and other critics, including NGOs and activists.
“Usually this starts with a letter threatening expensive proceedings unless online articles are rewritten or removed altogether, and demanding an agreement not to publish anything similar in the future. The letters often tell the recipient that they cannot even report the fact that they have received the letter.”
SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) are designed to intimidate and silence critics by burdening defendants with huge legal costs. “The purpose of SLAPPs is not to win the case. They are vexatious and are designed to eat up time and resources. They are a way to harass and intimidate journalists and others and dissuade them from reporting.”
Index on Censorship said that 34 US states have enacted laws to combat SLAPPs. California, which adopted its anti-SLAPP legislation in 2009, enables defendants to sue the original plaintiff for malicious prosecution or abuse of process.
In 2015, Canada passed the Protection of Public Participation Act, which aimed to implement a fast-track review process to identify and end vexatious lawsuits.