People from across the EU need to be protected from SLAPPs

Renata Rat

16 November 2020

No Comments

This opinion piece has been co-authored by 99 organisations, including ECPMF and the MFRR partners, as well as Greenpeace, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, and Transparency International (full list of authors is at the bottom).

 

One hot spring afternoon in Malta, a journalist drove up to her house to find a court marshall
duct-taping hundreds of sheets of paper to her front gate. Her family’s two guard dogs were
barking uncontrollably and snapped at the marshall through the bars of the gate, but he was
determined. The orders from the court were that the journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia,
must be served with 19 defamation lawsuits filed against her, in one go, by a wealthy and
powerful business figure. A few months later she was dead, murdered by a
remotely-triggered car bomb.

 

We are a group of civil society organisations that consider this to be the most egregious
case of SLAPPs we have seen so far, aggravated by the fact that the cases have continued
after Caruana Galizia’s death against her widower and three sons. “SLAPP” stands for
Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation. It’s a form of legal harassment designed to
intimidate critical voices into silence. Expensive and unscrupulous law firms market this
attack-dog service to powerful and wealthy individuals who can afford to drag on abusive
proceedings for years just to shield themselves from unwanted public scrutiny.
This scrutiny is the lifeblood of healthy democratic societies. The European Court of Human
Rights and other national and regional courts have consistently and explicitly recognised in
their judgments the important role a free press, and more broadly civil society, plays in
holding the powerful to account. Their judgments reaffirm the obligation states have to create
an environment that is conducive to free speech. Because without this, democracy weakens
and dies.

 

The holes in our laws that allow powerful people to hammer their critics into submission are
a hole in European democracy. Cases of abuse pepper the continent. Poland’s
second-biggest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, has received over 55 legal threats and
lawsuits by a number of actors including from Poland’s ruling party since 2015. French
businessman Vincent Bolloré and companies affiliated with the Bollore Group have
blanketed journalists and NGOs in libel suits to stop them covering his business interests in
Africa. In Spain, meat producer Coren is demanding €1 million in damages from an
environmental activist for criticising its waste management practices, having previously
threatened activists and scientists who were researching nitrate levels in its local waters.

 

The people we depend on for information about what is happening around us are being
distracted, impeded, or entirely blocked from pursuing their work by these costly and
resource-intensive legal attacks. The situation is becoming skewed beyond recognition.
When it comes to certain people, governments, companies and topics, it’s not writers, film
makers or journalists who decide what we read, watch and talk about. It’s not even the
courts, for SLAPPs rarely make it to a hearing, let alone a court judgment. Rather, it’s the
oligarchs and their associates in politics, through the lawyers they pay, who are shaping the
narrative and preventing the truth emerging.

 

We’ve seen a worrying pattern emerge in Europe of government officials or beneficiaries of
large public contracts adopting the tactics of celebrities and oligarchs to shield themselves
from the heightened level of scrutiny that their positions or financial links to government
warrant. The fact that the threats are often cross-border ratchets up the costs for journalists
and activists, who find themselves summoned to court far from home in Europe’s most
expensive legal jurisdictions.

 

Awareness of this problem is growing. European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová
has promised to “look into all possible options” to counter the threat SLAPPs pose to
European democracy. One promising solution lies in the institutions of the European Union,
and it could help realter the balance between pursuers of SLAPPs and the public’s right to
be informed of matters in the public interest.

 

EU wide legislation should be adopted to protect people across the European Union from
SLAPPs. This has to be a priority. As in other parts of the world, rules should be in place
across the EU to allow SLAPP suits to be dismissed at an early stage of proceedings, to
sanction SLAPP litigants for abusing the law and the courts, and to provide measures to
allow victims to defend themselves When we consider the importance of public watchdogs
such as investigative journalists, activists, and whistleblowers to the rule of law and the fight
against corruption, the absence of safeguards is a threat not only to press freedom but to the
proper functioning of Europe’s internal market and, increasingly, to Europe’s democratic life.

 

The reality is that for every journalist or activist threatened with violence in Europe, a
hundred more are silenced discreetly by letters sent by law firms, perverting laws meant to
protect the reputations of the innocent from attacks by the powerful. SLAPPs are a far less
barbaric means of silencing someone than a car bomb or a bullet to the head, but their
silencing effect is often just as destructive.

Access Info Europe – Helen Darbishire, Executive Director
Amnesty International – Eve Geddie – Head of European Institutions Office and Advocacy Director
ARTICLE 19 – Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia
ANTICOR (France)
Blueprint for Free Speech – Suelette Dreyfus
Centre for Free Expression (CFE) (Canada) – James L. Turk, Director,
CEE Bankwatch Network
Chceme zdravú krajinu (“We want a healthy country”, Slovakia) -Michal Daniška
Citizens Network Watchdog Poland – Katarzyna Batko-Tołuć, Programme Director
Civil Liberties Union For Europe – Balázs Dénes, Executive Director
Civil Rights Defenders (CRD) – John Stauffer, Deputy Executive Director
Civil Society Europe – Carlotta Besozzi
Clean Air Action Group (Hungary) – András Lukács
Climaxi, Filip De Bodt
Committee to Protect Journalists – Tom Gibson
Common Weal (Scotland), Robin McAlpine, Director
Corporate Europe Observatory – Nina Holland
Defend Democracy – Alice Stollmeyer, Executive Director
Earth League International
Environmental Paper Network (EPN) – Luisa Colasimone, coordinator EPN International
Estonian Forest Aid (Eesti Metsa Abiks), Martin Luiga, international cooperation coordinator
ePaństwo Foundation, Krzysztof Izdebski
Eurocadres – Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff – Martin Jefflén, President of Eurocadres
European Center For Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL)
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Flutura Kusari, legal advisor
European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ), Christopher Patz
European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Francesca Carlsson, Legal Officer
European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), President, Mogens Blicher Bjerregård
European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), Jan Willem Goudriaan, General Secretary
European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Isabelle Schömann, ETUC Confederal Secretary
FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), Gaelle Dusepulchre, permanent representative to the EU
Forest Initiatives and Communities (Ukraine)
Forum Ökologie & Papier – Evelyn Schönheit
Four Paws International, Gerald Dick
Free Press Unlimited (FPU), Director Policy & Programs, Leon Willems
Friends of the Earth Europe, Director , Jagoda Munić
Friends of the Earth Netherlands – Milieudefensie – Danielle van Oijen
Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) – Michael J. Oghia
Global Justice Ecology Project
GMWatch – Claire Robinson
Government Accountability Project, Tom Devine, Legal Director
Greenpeace EU Unit, Jorgo Riss, Executive Director
Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) – Dave Elseroad, Head of Advocacy and Geneva Office
Human Rights Without Frontiers, Willy Fautre
IFEX – Matt Redding – Global Campaigns Strategist
IGM – Institute of Maltese Journalists Sylvana Debono, president
Index on Censorship – Jessica Ní Mhainín
Institute for Sustainable Development Foundation – Wojciech Szymalski, president (CEO)
International Media Support, Gulnara Akhundova – Head of Global Response Department
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
International Press Institute (IPI) – Scott Griffen – Deputy Director
Iraqi Journalists Right Defence Association
Journalismfund.eu – Ides Debruyne
Justice and Environment, Csaba Kiss
Justice Pesticides, Arnaud Apoteker, General Delegate
Maison des Lanceurs d’Alerte (France), Jean-Philippe Foegle
Media Defence – Padraig Hughes, Legal Director
Mighty Earth – Glenn Hurowitz, CEO
MultiWatch (Switzerland)
Netherlands Helsinki Committee – Pepijn Gerrits
Nuclear Consulting Group (NCG) – Dr Paul Dorfman
OBC Transeuropa – Paola Rosà
OGM dangers, Hervé Le Meur
Oživení (Czech Republic), Marek Zelenka
Pištaljka (Serbia) – Vladimir Radomirović
Polish Institute for Human Rights and Business – Beata Faracik
Polish Ecological Club Mazovian Branch – Urszula Stefanowicz
Protect- Andrew Pepper-Parsons, Head of Policy
RECLAIM, Esther Martínez
Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue) – Mathias Rittgerott
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Christophe Deloire, Secretary General
Sherpa, Franceline Lepany
Sciences Citoyennes – Kevin Jean
Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) ( Switzerland)
SOLIDAR and SOLIDAR Foundation -Mikael Leyi, Secretary General (European networks, based in Belgium)
Speakout Speakup Ltd (United Kingdom) Wendy Addison
Stefan Batory Foundation (Poland) – Marcin Waszak
Strefa Zieleni Foundation (Poland) – Ewa Sufin-Jacquemart
SumOfUs – Fatah Sadaoui
Swedish Union of Journalists – Ulrika Hyllert
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation – Matthew Caruana Galizia
The Good Lobby Italia – Priscilla Robledo e Federico Anghelé
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)
The New Federalist
The Signals Network – Delphine Halgand-Mishra
Transnational Institute – Fiona Dove
Transparency International – Bulgaria – Kalin Slavov, Executive Director
Transparency International EU – Nick Aiossa, Deputy Director
Transparency International Ireland – John Devitt, Chief Executive
Transparency International Italy – Giorgio Fraschini
Umweltinstitut München – Fabian Holzheid, Political Director
Vouliwatch
WeMove Europe
Whistleblower Netzwerk (WBN) (Germany) – Annegret Falter, Chair
Whistleblowing International Network – Anna Myers, Executive Director.
Women Engage for a Common Future – WECF International – Sascha Gabizon
Xnet (Spain),
Young European Federalists (JEF Europe) – Leonie Martin, President
Associated Whistleblowing Press /Fíltrala (Belgium/Spain) Stéphane M. Grueso, Coordinator

Read news by categories:

Related news

Monitor

Mission Report: Turkey’s journalists on the ropes

READ MORE
Statement

France tramples on press freedom

READ MORE
Partners

Country factsheet: Hungary

READ MORE
Statement

MFRR calls for an investigation into the targeting of journalists by the UK Government

ECPMF, as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), calls for a robust and independent investigation into the potentially unlawful manipulation of Freedom of Information requests by the UK Government.

READ MORE
SLAPP

Poland: OKO.press bears huge financial burden for legal threats against it

OKO.press of Poland bears huge financial burden for legal threats against it.

READ MORE
Statement

Germany: attacks on journalists and media workers at protests impede coverage

READ MORE