21st Jan 2022

MEPs seek EU law on bogus anti-media litigation

  • Malicious lawsuits known as Slapps are being used to silence critical journalists (Photo: Marco Fieber)
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MEPs at committee level are seeking greater protection against lawsuits aimed at silencing and intimidating journalists and civil society.

On Thursday (14 October), they voted through a report urging the European Commission to come up with a proposal to curtail so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps).

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Roberta Metsola, a centre-right European Parliament vice-president from Malta, said this would include creating an EU fund to support Slapp victims.

"The key issue here is balance. We are targeting those who abuse our legal systems to silence or intimidate," she said in a statement.

The report attracted 63 votes for, nine against, and 10 abstentions.

The vote came as reporters behind the Pegasus revelations of government phone-snooping won the first Daphne Caruana Galizia Prize, named after a Maltese investigative journalist murdered in late 2017 for her reporting.

Caruana Galizia had at least 47 civil and criminal defamation lawsuits against her at the time of her assassination.

The committee report highlights the lack of anti-Slapp legislation in EU states, which exist elsewhere like the United States and Canada.

It noted that in the EU, Slapps "are often meritless, frivolous or based on exaggerated claims".

They are not designed to win court cases, but rather as a show of force, it said.

"The key feature of Slapps is their tendency to transfer debate from the political to the legal sphere," said an EU parliament study, noting that such intimidation tactics hindered free press and free speech to the advantage of the powerful.

It means critical media and NGOs in the EU are more likely to face such lawsuits than in other world regions.

EUobserver, for instance, was recently sued by a Belgian millionaire and an Iraqi billionaire over stories about shady Russian links to EU institutions' private-jet leasing and a disinformation campaign against Caruana Galizia.

It is also being threatened with a lawsuit by Lilya Lukashenko, the Belarusian president's daughter-in-law.

Notable cases against other media have also been lodged in Bulgaria, Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania , Slovenia, and Spain.

Last year, the Slovenian investigative news outlet Necenzurirano was hit with 39 Slapp lawsuits.

At least 13 of those lawsuits were filed by Rok Snežić, a tax expert and unofficial financial advisor to Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša.

And Janša himself is known for personally intimidating reporters online.

The European Parliament committee's report came with some 430 amendments. The draft will now go to a plenary vote in November amid demands the European Commission also comes up with a directive to ensure Slapps don't erode free expression and rule of law.

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