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22nd Jan 2022

Investigation

EUobserver wins right to keep VIP jet story online

  • Former EU Council president Donald Tusk (c) (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)
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An EUobserver article about VIP jet security for EU officials can stay online after a Belgian court decision last week.

The story, Spy-air? EU warned on VIP jet leasing, was published in November 2019.

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FlyingGroup, a Belgian firm pitching to lease jets for EU VIPs which had links to alleged Russian crooks, later complained that the report portrayed it in an "unflattering" way.

Its lawyers ordered EUobserver to take it down on pain of €50,000 a day in damages for every day it stayed up.

It then took the Belgium-based non-profit news agency to court.

But the Cour d'appel de Bruxelles ruled last Monday (22 November) that FlyingGroup failed to show an urgent need to remove the article.

It called the lawsuit "unfounded" and ordered FlyingGroup to pay EUobserver's legal costs.

"This is a victory in a case of principle concerning no less than the freedom of the press online," Pol Deltour, the national secretary of Belgian journalist trade union Vlaamse Vereniging van Journalisten (VVJ), said.

"Investigative journalism is coming under increasing pressure and we are dealing with lawyers more and more often. This verdict strengthens us in our journalistic work and motivates us even more to try to uncover the truth," EUobserver's editor-in-chief, Koert Debeuf, added.

Last week's court ruling does not prevent FlyingGroup from pursuing further legal action.

But it would now have to show the story contained errors which directly caused financial losses in a case with a higher burden of proof, the VVJ, which provided legal support to EUobserver, noted.

The FlyingGroup case comes in increasingly litigious times in Europe.

In another threat, Yuliya Lukashenko, the daughter-in-law of the Belarusian president, ordered EUobserver to take down an article entitled Lukashenko-linked firms active in EU member Cyprus.

Her Belgian lawyers, SIA Cabinet d'avocats, sent EUobserver's reporter two letters to his private home address in September with ultimatums to remove the story in 15 days.

Then they went quiet, leaving the threat hanging in the air.

Sandstone, a Luxembourg-based private intelligence firm, has also sued EUobserver to quash a story entitled Blood from stone: What did British PR firm do for Malta?.

The article was about disinformation on murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose family is still fighting posthumous libel cases.

But Sandstone's boss was subsequently arrested in France in connection with a transatlantic Ponzi scheme, putting his EUobserver lawsuit in doubt.

Shoemakers

The Sandstone suit prompted a statement of solidarity by press-freedom NGOs.

Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Slovenia were also becoming notorious for so-called SLAPPs (strategic legal action against public participation), designed to gag press and civil society, the NGOs warned.

The EU Commission aims to propose laws against malicious lawsuits in spring.

And the EU Parliament (EP) called for robust anti-SLAPP measures in a non-binding recommendation by 444 votes against 48 earlier this month.

"There is no place for abuse of our justice systems - that's the message," Roberta Metsola, a Maltese centre-right MEP who co-wrote the EP report, said at the time.

Journalists in Europe should have more protection than "shoemakers", EU values commissioner Věra Jourová also said in October, while announcing a separate bill on media-ownership pluralism.

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