26th Sep 2023

EUobserver under attack in wider battle for EU free press

  • Malta press freedom photo exhibition in European Parliament (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

If EU citizens want to know the truth, then European journalists need protection from malicious litigation, as EUobserver joined the list of targets, over an article about the late Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

That was the message from 16 pro-free press advocacy groups, who signed a letter of support for this website after it came under fire from a former spy and his billionaire patron.

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  • Frank Schneider used to be head of operations at the Service de Renseignement de l'État Luxembourgeois (Photo: chd.lu)

The former spy, Frank Schneider, who now runs a private-intelligence firm in Luxembourg called Sandstone, used to be head of operations at the grand duchy's security service, the Service de Renseignement de l'État Luxembourgeois.

The billionaire is an Iraqi tycoon, Nadhmi Auchi, who co-owns Sandstone.

And Sandstone is going after EUobserver, an independent news agency in Brussels, after this website reported, last year, that Schneider was implicated in a disinformation campaign about Caruana Galizia, who was assassinated in 2017 for her investigative journalism.

Luxembourg courts recently threw out Schneider's "criminal libel" case.

But Sandstone told a Luxembourg-based magazine, Land.lu, that it would litigate against EUobserver in Belgium in future.

It was unclear, as of Friday (26 June), whether Sandstone had filed a civil or criminal case in this website's home country.

It was also unclear if Schneider meant to make good on his threat, or to leave it hanging in the air.

But either way, Sandstone's actions met the description of what free-press advocates have called "SLAPPs" - strategic lawsuits against public participation - according to the Flemish journalists' association in Belgium, the Vlaamse Vereniging van Journalisten (VVJ).

SLAPPs typically involved powerful individuals, who attacked small media or freelancers, and who sought exorbitant penalties on flimsy grounds, a VVJ legal advisor, Charlotte Michils, said.

And Sandstone was just the latest in a line of previous attacks in Belgium, she noted.

In some cases, SLAPPs made journalists "even more highly motivated to keep the public informed," Michils said.

Belgian courts also had a strong track record of protecting democracy and press freedom, she added.

But even in best-case scenarios, SLAPPs, which often dragged out for years, drained victims' resources.

"You have to spend time and energy talking to lawyers and experts and you probably won't sleep the night before your court hearing," Michils said.

In other scenarios, SLAPPs caused undue retractions of true stories or other self-censorship.

"Journalists are poorly paid, work long hours, with few resources at their disposal, experience huge amounts of stress and difficulty to get a story that's in the public interest reported, and then, on top of that, they have to deal with abusive legal threats like the one by Sandstone [against EUobserver]," Matthew Caruana Galizia, one of Daphne's sons, who is also director of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation for journalism in Valetta, said.

The attack on EUobserver prompted a wave of solidarity.

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, the European Federation of Journalists in Brussels, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) in Leipzig, Germany, the Index on Censorship in London, and the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), were among the 16 groups who signed the letter of support.

International journalists at an EU summit in Brussels (Photo: Consilium)

Getting serious

They got involved because the problem was bigger than EUobserver, Luxembourg, Belgium, or any single EU state.

There were over 1,100 pending lawsuits in Croatia against journalists by politicians, public figures, and corporations at the end of 2019, for instance, according to the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog in Strasbourg, France.

Malta was another EU blackspot.

"It shouldn't be possible for powerful and wealthy individuals in Malta to abuse their power and the law, to file 20 libel cases against a single journalist in one go, as one person did to my mother," Matthew Caruana Galizia said.

His late mother, Daphne, was facing 47 ongoing lawsuits on 16 October 2017, the day a car bomb snatched her life.

"They continue to fight these cases against my family, as her heirs, following her murder," Matthew added, in what he dubbed a "legal atrocity".

But SLAPPs were also rife in EU heartland countries, such as France and Italy, as well as in Ireland and the UK, according to an ongoing study by the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, cited by the ECPMF.

And they were targeting anti-corruption NGOs and environmentalists, as well as journalists.

In France, for instance, Vincent Bolloré, a billionaire industrialist, has filed more than 20 SLAPPs against journalists and NGOs who tried to investigate his businesses in Africa, the RSF's Julie Majerczak noted.

"He does it systematically," she said.

The growing menace, also in the US, recently caught the attention of a prime-time TV comedian, John Oliver.

But the chilling effect of SLAPPs on free press was no joke, VVJ, the Flemish journalists' association in Belgium, noted.

"This is getting serious," the trade union's Michils said.

"All Belgian insurance companies recently refused to give collective cover for our members, who are journalists, due to the financial risk [of SLAPPs]," she noted.

"Now, journalists have to take out individual cover, which is more expensive," she said.

EU values commissioner Vera Jourová doing "analysis" on anti-SLAPP directive (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Hidden damage

The SLAPP wars were also bigger than any study could measure because most of them happened in secret.

"The cases that actually go to court are the tip of the iceberg," RSF's Majerczak said.

"Most small media or freelancers back down as soon as they get a lawyer's letter because they cannot afford the legal costs involved," she noted.

"Journalists rarely go public the way EUobserver has courageously done," Matthew Caruana Galizia said.

"The public can't see the damage [of SLAPPs]," he added.

"They have no way of knowing that reporting has been prevented or taken offline. They don't realise that corrupt deals, human rights violations, and ethical failures have taken place," he said.

For her part, the EU values commissioner, Věra Jourová, has voiced interest in SLAPPs in the past.

But the problem needed "deeper analysis" before she took steps, her spokeswoman told EUobserver this week.

"The [European] Commission is currently looking into the issue and preparing such an analysis to determine the best way to address this issue at European level," Jourová's spokeswoman said.

Some MEPs, such as German Green Viola von Cramon-Taubadel and Romanian liberal Ramona Strugariu, have been calling for new laws.

For them and the advocacy groups, Jourová should start drafting an anti-SLAPP directive as soon as she returned from her summer holiday in August.

The rich and powerful had a right to defend their reputations, EUobserver's friends said.

But a new EU law ought to mandate judges in member states to quickly throw out manifestly abusive cases and to impose sanctions on abusers.

The EU already had a whistleblower protection directive, which could act as a model, RSF noted.

California, a US state, and Canada also had anti-SLAPP laws that Jourová could look to, VVJ, the Flemish journalists' union, said.

Other reforms should also curb so called 'legislation and forum-shopping' in Europe, in which bullies were free to choose which EU jurisdiction or codex suited them best to launch attacks, campaigners added.

"It should not be possible for someone who wants to bully a journalist in Malta into silence to file a libel case against them in the UK, threatening to ruin them financially over a single story," Matthew Caruana Galizia said.

Matthew Caruana Galizia (l) and his brother, Andrew (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Public interest

In the meantime, the NGOs' letter gave moral support to this website and other targets.

"As a press freedom community, we can act in solidarity with outlets or individuals," the CPJ's Tom Gibson said.

But if EU citizens wanted hard-hitting stories that held powerful people to account, then member states, such as Belgium or Germany, where press was still free, should also show solidarity with places, such as Croatia or Malta, where journalists were on the edge, campaigners said.

"If in one [EU] country journalists don't dare to write openly about certain issues, because they are afraid of litigation, this causes problems for our whole [European] Union," von Cramon-Taubadel, the German MEP, said.

"SLAPPs ... deter journalists from publishing public-interest information, revealing serious wrongdoing," Strugariu, the Romanian MEP, added.

"People have a right to know about corruption and we want that right to be reinforced with an [EU] anti-SLAPP directive," Matthew Caruana Galizia said.

EU parliament backs whistleblower law

MEPs backed an EU law to protect whistleblowers from retaliation in both the public and private sectors. EU states will have two years to transpose the directive.


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