Investigative journalists across Europe work to expose corruption and abuses of power. Their vital work keeps governments and corporations accountable to us all.
Yet, powerful politicians and wealthy business people are filing lawsuits to harass or silence journalists who expose their wrongdoings. Known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs, these lawsuits help those in power to evade public scrutiny. SLAPPs are also used to silence human rights defenders, environmental activists and political opponents, the people who work to protect us all.
In other words, SLAPPs are a form of legal harassment and an example of how powerful people can turn the law into a weapon.
ARTICLE 19’s latest report looks at how SLAPPs have begun spreading across 11 countries in Europe – and the urgent reforms that can fix this.
Why should you care about SLAPPs?
The people who file SLAPPs do not seek to win their cases. Their aim is to bully and bankrupt journalists. Many journalists report that such tactics affect their mental health and sometimes dissuade them from reporting on issues that affect the public at large.
This financial and psychological strain means that SLAPPs also make it harder for journalists to focus on their regular reporting. As a result, SLAPPs lower the quality of the public debate and reduce our society’s exposure to diverse information and ideas.
In short, SLAPPs can silence critical voices, decrease press freedom, prevent us from demanding accountability from our leaders, deprive our societies of information, and ultimately, threaten democracy.
“They bully us because they can”
The expense of bringing a lawsuit is a negligible cost for claimants given their wealth and influence.
Defendants, on the other hand, are independent journalists, small media outlets, or individual activists, for whom the cost of hiring lawyers can be crippling.
Claimants exploit this power imbalance to force defendants either to:
- Settle the lawsuits
- Abandon the criticism (usually a report or a series of reports in a newspaper)
- Issue an apology, thus white-washing the plaintiff’s reputation and shielding them from criticism.
The process is the punishment
Cases may be won, lost or settled, but the end result for the media – and by extension – for the public, is the same. The process functions as a drain on their resources and a clear signal to stop the critical reporting.
Media and journalists rarely recover their full legal costs, let alone the time and other resources invested in defending the case.
The law does not provide sufficient protection
Depending on the legal system and framework of each country, SLAPPs manipulate ambiguous laws on libel, defamation, and reputational damage, to masquerade as legitimate legal claims.
Our report explores which laws are particularly problematic. It also reveals an increase in litigation across Europe targeting journalists, media, civil society organisations and individuals as retaliation for their reporting.
This report is based on in-depth research on SLAPP litigation against journalists in 11 countries over the last 4 years. These are: Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. In addition, we published two country reports which outline the implications of SLAPPs for media and democracy in Serbia and in Spain.
Our research shows that these lawsuits are being filed across Europe, in remarkably similar ways.
What can we do to address this?
A system of checks and balances is vital to making sure power is evenly distributed.
Journalists and human rights defenders – those who act as our public guardians – are that system. As a result, they help keep European democracy alive.
Therefore, EU governments must create robust protections for journalists, both in law and in practice. Doing that means securing the justice system from abuse – one of the fundamental values of the EU.
- We need urgent reform of EU laws to protect vital journalism
ARTICLE 19 is calling for an EU-wide directive against SLAPPs. These urgent legal reforms will see to it that journalists can continue to fulfil their vital roles in society.
At minimum the reforms should see to it that:
- Defamation and insult laws have civil rather than criminal sanctions
- Training is offered to judges to improve their awareness about SLAPPs
- Financial aid is made available for the defence of independent journalists or small media outlets.
What’s more, an EU directive will serve as a model across the continent and provide a high and uniform level of protection for those who work in the public interest.
- We must support those who work in the public interest
We need to stand in solidarity with journalists and human rights defenders. These are the ordinary people who show extraordinary integrity, courage, and determination for the benefit of us all.
“We can no longer allow those with wealth and power to evade public scrutiny. ARTICLE 19 is calling on governments across the EU to urgently implement legislative reforms to protect journalists from abusive legal action and ensure public interest reporting can continue.”
Head of Europe and Central Asia
Greece: SLAPP lawsuit underscores need for swift EU directive
Spain: SLAPPs – legal harassment against journalists
Poland: Dismissal of SLAPP-targeted journalist sets concerning precedent
UK: 19 organisations condemn the lawsuits against Catherine Belton and HarperCollins, deeming them “SLAPPs”
Serbia: SLAPPs used to intimidate journalists and evade public scrutiny
EU: Protecting public watchdogs, a proposal for an anti-slapp law
Event wrap: How to tackle SLAPPs in Europe?
The online panel ‘How to tackle SLAPPs against public watchdogs in Europe?’ featured Věra Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission, Catherine Belton, journalist and author of ‘Putin’s People’, Veronika Feicht, campaigner for the Munich Environmental Institute, Sarah Clarke from ARTICLE 19, and Corinne Vella from the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation. It was facilitated by Charlie Holt from Greenpeace International. Speakers elaborated on the dire impact of SLAPPs based on personal testimonies, discussed key findings from two new reports on SLAPPs in Europe by ARTICLE 19 and the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (authored by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation) as well as forthcoming EU measures. Read key takeaways from the discussion and watch the recording on our Youtube channel or Facebook page.
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