“I can assure you; we will not stop,” was the message from victorious rapporteurs in European Parliament following a vote to adopt a report on protecting journalists against SLAPP across all 27 member states.
Recognition of the abusive nature of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) has increased in recent years after it emerged that Daphne Caruana Galizia had more than 40 vexatious defamation suits pending against her at the time of her 2017 assassination.
Since then, momentum has grown at the EU level, with the European Commission and now Parliament calling for change.
The report, co-authored by Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola and German MEP Tiemo Wolken, was adopted with 444 votes in favour, 48 against, and 75 abstentions. This means most EU lawmakers support its findings and recommendations, including the creation of a directive to protect journalists.
When asked by The Shift if today’s result was indicative of the strength needed to ensure member states adhere to potential new laws, Metsola said it was.
“The real challenge now is to get the Commission and Council on board. I can assure you the parliament will not stop; we are strong enough to put that pressure on the Commission. Yes, we need political will and political pressure, we have done it before, we will do it again,” she said.
The report, now adopted by Parliament, will be used to pressure the Commission into adopting an EU-wide directive that must be transposed into member state law.
On 4 October, the Commission launched a public consultation that will feed into an initiative to tackle abusive lawsuits, and in 2022, they are expected to present the Media Freedom Act to safeguard independence and media pluralism.
When asked by The Shift what would happen if a member state refuses to enact anti-SLAPP legislation at a national level, Wolken said various mechanisms could be utilised.
“If they do not apply EU primary or secondary law, they can be sued by the Commission. If member states do not apply it, the EU can force them to apply it,” he said.
Metsola explained to The Shift that Parliament has been calling for anti-SLAPP legislation since 2017.
“Today’s overwhelming vote sums up months of hard work to reach a common position as all the major groups constructively engaged in the process. Through the strong majority in favour of the report, the European Parliament has sent a strong and clear message on how Europe could truly become a safe space for journalists to be able to do their job,” she said.
For Daphne; for Jan; for every journalist faced with impossible choices; for every media house forced to choose whether to fight SLAPP suits or pay their journalists; for everyone seeking the truth who found the system favoured those who wanted to hide it; for us all. https://t.co/vtWwptCG3Z
— Roberta Metsola MEP (@RobertaMetsola) November 11, 2021
She also said that today’s result is of great importance as “SLAPPs are a clear abuse of our legal systems, targeted to silence journalists who are investigating wrongdoings, NGOs uncovering criminal activities, and civil society exposing crooks.”
The co-rapporteur added that the threat of SLAPPs means journalists are faced with weighing up the consequences of publishing the truth.
“They [SLAPPs] do this by forcing them [journalists] to assess whether reporting the truth is worth the financial and emotional hardship that comes with lawsuits being filed abroad. Even if SLAPPs try to chip away at it, Europe will continue defending the fourth pillar of our democracy,” she added.
Wolken said that we could no longer stand by and watch as the rule of law is currently threatened, along with freedom of expression and the right to information.
“It is our duty to protect journalists, NGOs and civil society organisations reporting on matters of public interest. 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,” he said.
Currently, no EU member states have passed any specific legislation against SLAPPs. As a result, the report makes several recommendations, including proposals for future legislation. They include a far-reaching EU directive against SLAPP that protects victims and holds abusers to account.
It also calls for an ambitious legal framework in the upcoming Media Freedom Act, “libel tourism” prevention, rules on early dismissal of abusive cases, and safeguards on combined SLAPPs (criminal and civil charges).
Lastly, it asks for establishing an EU fund that would support victims of SLAPP and their families. This is particularly pertinent considering the family of Caruana Galizia inherited many of the SLAPPs filed against her and are having to fight them while mourning their mother.
“It was a proud moment to see our report voted with such a large majority,” Metsola said in a press conference after the vote, adding that a balance has been struck between offering protection against libel and defamation and the right of journalists to report.
Sven Giegold, speaker of the German green delegation said that SLAPPs are “nothing less than an attack on our democracy. The pressure of looming lawsuits and the associated financial risks curb the ability of the media and civil society to act enormously. Powerful people from politics and business abuse the rule of law to silence unpleasant voices from the press and civil society.”
Romanian MEP Ramona Strugariu also spoke in favour of the report at the plenary session where the report was debated on Wednesday.
“Inaction can no longer be justified. We need to put an end to SLAPPs,” she said in her speech.
In June 2021, European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova said the EU executive is working on measures to protect journalists and fight back against abusive lawsuits. The so-called ‘anti-SLAPP initiative’ should be adopted by the end of the year and would include legislative and non-legislative measures.
Asides from the cases pending against Caruana Galizia, most of which were filed by Labour Party politicians, media in Malta have faced many threats of SLAPP. The Shift has been targeted on multiple occasions with both frivolous local lawsuits and the threat of hefty international litigation.