Countries that have experienced cases of murdered journalists should be working harder than others to protect journalists, including by implementing protection against SLAPP, according to Vice President of the European Commission Vera Jourova.
In an online panel event to launch the new website for the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE), The Shift asked her what could be done in the case of Malta whereby the government has been reluctant to provide additional support against SLAPP lawsuits (financially crippling lawsuits filed in a foreign jurisdiction).
Honoured to launch the new anti-SLAPP website developed by the coalition of NGOs. Journalists should not risk their reputation or economic survival due to ingenuous lawsuits. #SLAPPs can be a serious threat for #democratic participation. Therefore, they require a robust response. pic.twitter.com/FCNoN7mLjj
— Věra Jourová (@VeraJourova) March 26, 2021
She said: “For some Member States, it’s not a rosy picture at all. I don’t want to name and shame, but of course, countries that already have murdered journalists should do more than others. I would expect they do more because they have experience”.
Jourova added that while the EU cannot force Member States to implement protections, they can impose political pressure. She added that if there are problems in Member States, it’s a reputational problem for them in the eyes of others.
The event brought together a selection of experts on SLAPP in the European context including Jourova, Ana Gomes (former Socialist MEP), Andrew Caruana Galizia, whistleblower Jonathan Taylor, and LBGT+ activists The Atlas of Hate. One of the main topics on the table was a proposed EU Anti-SLAPP Directive and the need to provide additional protection for media workers throughout Europe.
In her keynote speech, Jourova added that the COVID pandemic has exacerbated the issues that journalists face, and it’s become more important than ever to protect them. “We all know that corruption, fraud, and political corruption only see the light of day because journalists work hard with sources and whistleblowers. Media and journalists need to be protected so they can fulfil their function.”
Economic and political pressure placed upon journalists through physical threats, online threats, and the more frequent appearance of SLAPPs is a “very dangerous trend” that is being observed more frequently since the onset of the COVID pandemic, she added.
On the topic of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Jourova said that when she reads the news coming out of Malta, it’s a “strong moment” because “what Daphne Caruana Galizia discovered was true”.
She described the fight between journalists and those weaponising SLAPPs as “the fight between David and Goliath” and said efforts must be made to protect those on the weaker side of the conflict.
Andrew Caruana Galizia spoke of the 47 libel cases filed against his mother at the time of her murder. “My mother always had a very stoic approach to these cases… but in the last year of her life, it became unbearable. She spent a significant amount of time in court, her bank accounts were frozen – this had a huge impact on her work. She left so much unfinished at the time of her death.”
He explained that during one of his last conversations with her, she had expressed how worried she was which he said was unusual. “If she hadn’t been assassinated, she would have been crushed financially. In the last two weeks of her life, there was this feeling she would never get out of this.”
After her murder, the family inherited 24 of the cases with damages that could exceed hundreds of thousands of euros. There have been repeated calls for the cases to be dropped, but these have been ignored. Andrew explained how in the days after his mother’s assassination, they only left the house twice. Once to identify her remains, and the second time to appear in court for an inherited libel suit.
Moderator Sarah Clarke from ARTICLE 19 added that the inheritance of libel suits is an unusual and peculiar Maltese phenomenon. “If the Maltese government wanted to show its determination to solve the investigation and show support to the family the politicians could have withdrawn the suits, but they have failed to do so.”
Ana Gomes spoke about her experiences with SLAPP in her role as a politician. She also said how “thrilled” she was to see the latest developments in Malta regarding the assassination of Caruana Galizia. “I was stunned when Daphne told me about 47 libel cases. I cannot imagine how that must be… it’s crucial to find strategies to support journalists and to expose those, including law firms that are filing the suits.”
She added that a lack of integrity in judicial systems was also a part of the SLAPP problem. “People in the justice system are bribed, the case of Daphne shows this,” she said.
She also expressed her disappointment in the way in which “certain other commissioners” in the European Parliament handled the journalist’s assassination. She referred to former MEP and current Minister Miriam Dalli, who comes from the same political group: “Miriam Dalli, I would like to see her face these days, trying to suffocate the work the European Parliament was doing to uncover the truth and to show moral support to the family”.
Linda Ravo from the Coalition made it clear that Member States have a legal obligation to provide protection against SLAPPs. This, she said, is because SLAPPs contravene the European Convention on Human rights and the European Charter of Human Rights.
“Currently, no EU country provides strong legal safeguards. Given the size of the problem, we are asking concretely for the Council of Europe to issue a recommendation on the matter.”
She also announced the EU SLAPP contest where ‘awards’ will be given to the most outrageous SLAPPs of the last 12 months, including those who filed them and the law firms involved.
It was noted that while SLAPP protection is essential, there needs to be a careful balance so that people are not deprived of the right to judicial redress. This can be partially achieved via the training of judges and legal professionals to recognise vexatious lawsuits.