10th Dec 2023

Poland and Malta: EU capitals for legal harassment of journalists

  • Some 245 cases were initiated against journalists in Croatia last year alone (Photo: GiantsFanatic)
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Poland and Malta are the worst places in Europe for legal harassment of journalists, in what NGOs called a "worrying threat to democracy".

Poland emerged as the 'Slapp' capital of the EU in a study by Case, an NGO coalition, out on Wednesday (23 August), referring to "strategic lawsuits against public participation".

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It recorded 128 court cases over the past 10 years, with the vast majority of them during the last eight years in power of the nationalist-populist Law and Justice party.

Malta came second (88), followed by France (76), Croatia (54), Slovenia (42), Italy (32), and Ireland (31).

Malta also came top, by a long chalk, in terms of the numbers of cases per 100,000 people in its population, on 19.9 cases — followed by Slovenia (2.02), Croatia (1.29), Luxembourg (0.64), and Ireland (0.63).

The figures barely scratch the surface of what's really going on because, court proceedings aside, the rich and powerful also try to silence media via "aggressive legal threats" that lead to retractions and self-censorship.

Croatia, for instance, saw 245 new cases initiated against journalists in 2022 alone, but Case was not able to see if all of them met their Slapp criteria.

The EU is currently working on an anti-Slapp law that will give judges new powers for early-dismissal of manifestly abusive cases and to fine wrongdoers.

The final details are being discussed by the European Commission, MEPs, and EU diplomats in so-called trilogues.

But NGOs have already warned that recent compromise drafts of the text threatened to defang the legislation, even though, according to Wednesday's report: "On a rolling basis, Case is identifying an increasing number of vexatious lawsuits that shut down acts of participation, and the list of countries around Europe that are home to such lawsuits is growing".

The study showed that the vast majority of cases were brought by politicians and state entities (340 out of 820 cases surveyed) and businessmen (335 cases).

Most victims (560) were journalists, editors, or media outlets, although NGO activists, academics, and even cartoonists have been targeted.

The top complaint was alleged defamation (590 cases) or privacy breach (41) and the number one issue at question was alleged corruption (181 cases).

Plaintiffs usually filed civil lawsuits (69.6 percent) instead of criminal ones (20.9 percent), or seeking injunctions (6.5 percent).

They often asked for what Case called "exorbitant demands in value for damages" — the highest figure sought was €17.6m, but the average was €360,659.

And even if they wanted just a symbolic €1, as in some instances, this still drained individual journalists or editors' financial and psychological resources, Case warned.

Media faced extra work to prepare their defence and defendants' lawyers, in Brussels for instance, also billed them hundreds of euros per hour for handling their fightback.

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