Media freedom organisations and MEPs back new anti-SLAPP law

By Emil Weber – 06.03.2018

Six members of the European Parliament have called on the European Commission (EC) to swiftly initiate legislation to protect investigative journalism in Europe.

Benedek Jávor MEP. Photo: Bence Járdány

The cross party MEPs David Casa, Ana Gomes, Monica Macovei, Maite Pagazaurtundúa, Stelios Kouloglou and Benedek Jávor, in a letter dated 19th February 2018 to the EC Vice-president Frans Timmermans, said that the type of legal action nicknamed SLAPP, which is increasingly used to silence critical voices, requires “an EU response”.

What is a SLAPP and why is it bad?

SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. According to the Public Participation Project based in the United States, such lawsuits target those who speak in the public interest with a purpose of silencing and harassing them. “SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources”, the website says.

A recent SLAPP case involved the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was assassinated in October 2017. According to the six MEPs, the Pilatus Bank headquartered in Malta had filed a 40 million dollar lawsuit against Ms. Caruana Galizia in Arizona, United States.

The MEPs’ letter points out:

Neither Pilatus Bank nor Daphne Caruana Galizia have any link with the US. The choice of jurisdiction is intended solely to make mounting a legal defence as painful and financially crippling as possible. This is a perfect illustration of the abusive and contemptible nature of SLAPP practices. 

The bank was recently mentioned in money laundering reports based on Panama Papers revelations, which has triggered enquiries from the European Central Bank.       

Another case considered as SLAPP in Malta was recently reported from website.

On 20 December 2017, the website published a story involving Henley and Partners – which acts as an agent for Malta’s cash-for-citizenship scheme – and a suspect Grenada diplomatic passport allegedly issued to a businessman living in the UK.

The next day, Henley & Partners UK Ltd. wrote a letter to The Shift News asking to immediately withdraw the story:

There is simply no basis for these false claims and the publication and re-publication of this fabricated story. If this article is not withdrawn, regrettably, we will have no choice but to consider appropriate next steps, including legal action 

The website did not remove its news report. Ms. Caroline Muscat, editor of The Shift News, told European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) that such letters aim to “silence criticism”.

“We have not had a response from Henley and Partners to our reply [refusal to withdraw the news], but they have not renounced the threat”, Ms. Muscat said. “It hangs on us in every article where Henley and Partners come into the picture”.

Ms. Sarah Nicklin, head of public relations at Henley & Partners, told ECPMF that the company does not “contest open, independent and serious journalism” and “recognises and respects the freedom and the decision of The Shift News to publish such content”.

“As such, we have not taken any further action on this matter [legal action]”, she said.

Corruption allegations

However, Ms. Nicklin said that the company was not contacted for a comment prior to the publication and it believes it has a duty to protect its good name “by openly and transparently pursuing the rectification of the re-published and false claims”.

“Our point was, and remains, that we see it as defamatory to cite and republish content from knowingly dubious sources and in this instance, an entire, fabricated story by a convicted criminal”, Ms. Nicklin said. “The Shift News published ‘facts in the public domain’ without validation, and without researching or challenging the underlying source”.

According to her, the article had pointed “to a rouge source of information” when it referred to the writings of blogger Kenneth Rijock. Mr. Rijock, convicted for money laundering in the 1980s  now runs a financial crime blog.  

The Shift News’s article had mentioned also other sources. “The article was based on another published [article] that contained documentary evidence of correspondence. That article has not been removed based on its findings”, Ms. Muscat, the editor, told ECPMF.

According to the editor, Henley and Partners and Pilatus Bank could be acting “on the instructions of the government of Malta to silence critics”.

“We maintain our stand that if we are unable to report on the actions of these two companies that are at the centre of corruption allegations in Malta, then there is no point to our existence. Hence, our fight”, Ms. Muscat said.

The six MEPs said in their letter that Henley and Partners had been previously exposed by Daphne Caruana Galizia “as having been plotting SLAPP lawsuits against her together with the top Maltese government officials”.

They warned that the SLAPP practice is not limited to Malta, but has recently involved even global media such as The Guardian and the BBC.

Media freedom organisations back anti-SLAPP law 

The MEPs proposed that the legislation should make it possible to dismiss such lawsuits in Europe, that targeted journalists can claim compensation, that punitive fines are established against firms that sue, that funds are created to support journalists against SLAPPs, and that an EU register is introduced, listing the names of firms that pursue such practices.

“We are committed to the protection of investigative journalists and media freedom across the EU and we will pursue this issue until EU Anti-SLAPP legislation is in place”, they said in the letter to the EC vice-president.

“Aiming to silence journalists” – Kusari

Ms. Joy Hyvarinen, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship, said that the initiative is welcomed as there is growing concern about the effect of SLAPPs on media freedom in Europe.

“There is a need to end such misuse of the law, which makes it possible for those with the money to threaten journalists with lawsuits that would be too expensive to fight, even when the lawsuit has little chance of succeeding in the end. This is a problem that needs to be addressed at the European level”.

Ms. Flutura Kusari, a media lawyer at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, said that the organisation is worried about the increasing cases of SLAPP lawsuits against journalists across the Europe.

“Their aim is to silence journalists”, Ms. Kusari said. “In order to stop powerful people from abusing defamation legislation, a combination of legislative and other measures needs to be taken at national and EU level. We welcome the initiative of MEPs for an EU directive against SLAPPs and we call on the European Commission to undertake all necessary steps to put in place anti-SLAPP legislation”.  

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