EU ministers clash on media libel and defamation rules
EU justice ministers have agreed to halt far-reaching plans to establish common EU rules on cross-border disputes, following fears that parts of the law would violate freedom of expression.
The proposed law aims to define which national law applies in disputes where individuals or companies from different countries are involved, including non-EU member states.
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However, ministers meeting in Brussels on Tuesday (21 February) decided to postpone the law after it became clear that unanimous agreement would not be possible.
"In the future we need rules in this area, but we need time to come up with a more sensible proposal," justice commissioner Franco Frattini.
According to the proposal tabled by the commission, the law in the country in which the alleged damage occurred would bear the law.
Damages concerning, for example, a traffic accident would be heard in the country where the accident took place, with the possibility of bringing the dispute to the victim’s home country if both parties agree.
The commission argues that that this common principle would prevent "shopping" for the most favourable legislation in cross-border disputes.
But Austrian justice minister Karin Gastinger said that EU ministers had failed to agree on this principle being applied to national liability laws for the media, dealing with defamation of private citizens, public figures or religious icons in the press.
A scenario emerged that journalists of a particular member state could be condemned for libelling or defamating an individual or a company according to laws applicable in another country, even one outside the EU.
This has been met with fierce resistance.
Media organisations, NGOs and politicians warned of damage to the principle of freedom of speech, arguing that a Swedish newspaper, for instance, could be sentenced according to Syrian or Pakistani law following a law suit on defamation from a citizen in either of these countries.
Critics also pointed out that an inconvenient practical consequence of the commission proposal would be that media in one country would be obliged to have knowledge of all other countries' media laws - which would be impossible to oversee.
Representatives from various media organisations across the EU have lobbied to have defamation and libel cases ruled according to the editors' home country.
Mr Frattini said he would soon propose a revised version of the regulation, with the article on media freedom excluded from the package.
"If we retained it, it would mean a very long delay, and we are making a lot of progress on other areas," he said.
He added that the issue would not be swept under the carpet, only that it needed more time.