The European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee this morning adopted its position on new rules it believes will ensure EU-wide protection against vexatious lawsuits against public participation.
The Committee’s position was passed with 15 votes in favour, one against and one abstention.
The new draft rules contain safeguards against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) and associated threats.
“These are unfounded and abusive legal actions to silence those working in the public interest on matters such as fundamental rights, the environment and public access to information,” the Committee said in a statement after the vote.
The measures would apply in cross-border cases, such as when a defendant and claimant are not based in the member state of the court.
MEPs also extended the definition of cross-border cases to include cases where the topic of the case is relevant to more than one country and is accessible electronically, such as in the cases of news portals.
They have also urged EU countries to implement the Commission’s recommendations for national cases, especially when it comes to legal assistance for those targeted.
If the EP’s position makes it through the European Council, those targeted by a SLAPP would be able to apply for their case to be dismissed early and it would be up to the claimant to prove that the case is not manifestly unfounded.
Claimants would also cover all costs of proceedings, while the victims of SLAPPs would have the right to compensation for related damage, including reputational harm.
Defamation cases would only be admissible in the defendant’s national court.
MEPs also want member states to not recognise judgements against those targeted by SLAPPs in third countries and domiciled in their territory.
On the contrary, such targeted people would be entitled to claim compensation for SLAPP in the national courts.
According to MEPs, member states should provide legal, financial and psychological assistance to SLAPPs victims, including creating one-stop-shops with relevant support contacts and collect pertinent data, especially on court decisions.
Following the Committee’s vote, rapporteur Tiemo Wölken said, “SLAPP lawsuits are a threat to the rule of law and seriously undermine the fundamental rights to expression, information and association.
“They are a form of legal harassment and an abuse of the justice system that is used increasingly by powerful individuals and organisations to avoid public scrutiny. The aim of a SLAPP is not to win the case, but to intimidate and deter many journalists and activists from making information known to the public, thus resulting in self-censorship.
“Our courts should not be seen as a playground for powerful individuals, companies and politicians and should not be abused for personal gain.”
Parliament will adopt its negotiating position at its plenary session in July. It will then decide together with the Council on the new legislation’s final form.
MEP Magdalena Adamowicz, who negotiated the law on behalf of the EPP Group, said, “This law stands for zero tolerance on silencing people speaking out on issues of public interest. We are facing an issue that is undeniably disruptive to the freedom of the media, expression and assembly, and thus to the essence of democracy.
“For us, this is also ‘Daphne’s Law’, in memory of the brave Maltese journalist who was murdered because of her investigations. When media freedom and fundamental civil rights, such as the right to information and expression, are being unceremoniously attacked, the issue of countering SLAPPs is of vital importance to ensure a level playing field for democratic elections.
“Journalists and civil society representatives are the democratic backbone of the EU. They must be able to do their job free of fear and legal oppression. It is high time that the EU adopts binding measures to counteract the threat that SLAPPs pose.”