Out of 47 European countries analysed by the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE), Malta has, by far, the highest number of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) per capita.
The development was due to the government’s multiple court challenges against 40 freedom of information requests filed by The Shift.
Malta’s SLAPP score of 19.93 per capita towers above Europe’s second-most SLAPPed country, Slovenia, which had just 2.02 SLAPPs per capita last year.
Malta’s SLAPPs per capita more than doubled, from eight cases per capita in 2021, after the government began challenging 40 Information and Data Protection Tribunal rulings in The Shift’s favour before the Court of Appeal.
“This increase is mostly due to 40 Freedom of Information requests filed by the editor of the Maltese online investigative portal The Shift News that were subsequently challenged in court by the government,” CASE said in its report published on Wednesday morning.
“A total of 44 new SLAPPs were recorded in Malta in 2022, a significant change from 2021 where only four SLAPPs were recorded. This was the highest annual number of SLAPPs since 2017, when 33 SLAPPs were filed against Daphne Caruana Galizia alone.”
Earlier this month, The Shift won another two Court of Appeal cases, bringing the tally of cases won so far to 14. Those government entities have been ordered to supply the data requested through the freedom of information mechanism.
SLAPPs are an increasing problem across Europe, the report, drawn up for CASE by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, found. CASE’s SLAPP database increased from 570 cases in 2022 to 820 in June 2023. 161 SLAPPs were registered in 2022, an increase from 135 in 2021.
“Pursued by wealthy and powerful litigants, SLAPPs are an abuse of the legal system and a threat to democracy,” CASE explained. “They attempt to intimidate and silence public watchdogs through lengthy and expensive litigation that drains a target’s resources and chills critical voices.”
The most common legal theory behind the SLAPPs filed between 2010 and 2022 was defamation (590), followed by breach of privacy (41), and appeals against The Shift’s FOI requests (40).
9.5% of the cases recorded from 2010 till 2022 were cross-border, as defined by the traditional understanding of the concept, “underscoring the need to include the broadest, most inclusive definition of ‘cross-border’ in national anti-SLAPP legislation to protect as many public watchdogs as possible”.
The three most common targets of SLAPPs are all media-related: journalists, media outlets, and editors, in that order. Activists and NGOs are the fourth and fifth most common SLAPP targets.
The most common type of SLAPP offenders, the report found, were businesspersons (335) followed by politicians (227), and State-owned entities (113) in third place.
The issues that most frequently triggered the filing of SLAPPs were – in order – corruption, government, business and the environment.
In 8.3% of the cases in 2022, defendants faced criminal repercussions such as incarceration.
“Year after year, SLAPPs are increasingly a worrying threat to democracy across Europe,” CASE said in its report. “Since the first CASE SLAPPs report was published in March 2022, a notable number of SLAPP lawsuits have been mapped in Malta, France, Croatia, Greece, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Georgia.”
The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) is a broad coalition of 110+ non-governmental organisations from across Europe, united in recognition of the threat posed to public watchdogs by SLAPPs. In the last four years, CASE has worked to convince European Union institutions and member states to legislate against SLAPPs.