Europe: Journalists speak of the devastating impact of SLAPPs

Europe: Journalists speak of the devastating impact of SLAPPs - Media

Campaigners present a petition for an EU Anti-SLAPPs law to EU Commission Vice President Věra Jourová. Photo: Thomas Cytrynowicz

In a new series of interviews, ARTICLE 19 Europe speaks with journalists from Croatia, Poland, Serbia, Spain, and the United Kingdom, who open up about their plight against repeated legal threats aimed at shutting down investigations into abuses of power. 

Unmasking the truth is one of the primary goals of public interest journalism. Yet it often comes with a high price. The rich, the powerful – among them elected officials – are increasingly using a vast arsenal of vicious tactics to prevent the truth from coming out. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) have mushroomed across Europe in recent years and have quickly become an exemplary illustration of how businessmen, politicians and corporations can turn the law into a weapon.

“For public watchdogs, the prospect of a long drawn-out lawsuit can result in many hours spent on legal strategy casting a shadow on their private and professional life and which may eventually lead to financial bankruptcy. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. SLAPPs strike at the very core of well-functioning democracy by crippling open public debate and transparency. Abusive lawsuits contribute to the culture of fear. This means scores of journalistic investigations never published and crimes never exposed,” says Sarah Clarke, Head of ARTICLE 19 Europe.

Stories of legal harassment 

‘They want to destroy me and my family’, says Hrvoje Zovko, a longtime reporter and president of the Croatian Journalists’ Association, referring to three lawsuits filed against him for ‘damage to honour and reputation’ and ‘slander’ for a total amount of 33,000 EUR. Zovko was sued by his former employer, public television HRT, which fired him in 2018 after he had openly denounced censorship in public media. Zovko eventually got his job back, and won the civil case against him when the County Court in Zadar rejected the HRT’s appeal. However, his criminal case, brought forward by HRT, continues. In his interview, Zovko speaks about a great psychological and financial burden that he and those close to him were forced to endure. ‘I spent long hours and days in court’, he adds.

Polish journalist Ewa Ivanova was working for a small media outlet when her editor received a letter from the National Public Prosecutor Bogdan Święczkowski threatening the editorial board and the journalist herself with a defamation lawsuit for approximately 12,000 EUR. Święczkowski demanded removal of an article in which Ivanova reported on her investigation into an unjustified additional financial allowance for a group of high-ranking prosecutors. Shortly after the article disappeared from the website, Ivanova lost her job. ‘Many journalists in Poland start to censor themselves and avoid sensitive topics. They are scared of [going to] trial and lack support from their editors’, says Ivanova, who now works for Gazeta Wyborcza.

Jelena Vasic works for KRIK, a Serbian investigative media outlet that is routinely sued over coverage on corruption, claiming a steep amount of money that exceeds its annual budget. There was a time when KRIK was fighting four parallel lawsuits started by the same plaintiff. Vasic is convinced that the main purpose of those cases was to exhaust the team financially. KRIK doesn’t bend to pressure. ‘We will defend every story we have written and provide the evidence to the court when needed. We think our stories should always be bulletproof’, says Vasic. She highlights that in Serbia, politicians and business people sue journalists to harm their credibility in the eyes of society but also simply ‘just because they can’.

‘Fear has been with me for many years. For years I have been waiting to find out whether I would be declared innocent or not’, says Spanish journalist Francisco Pastor who, alongside his colleague and the magazine that published his article, was sued by actor Antonio Resines. The actor demanded 70,000 EUR in compensation for damage to his honour following an article looking into discrepancies between him and the Spanish Film Academy. The journalist was sued both under criminal and civil law. The drawn-out legal proceedings took a huge toll on Pastor’s wellbeing.

‘I was putting my family through the prospect of imminent ruin by sticking to my guns’, recalls British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, who exposed a high-level corruption scandal involving the former Prime Minister of Malaysia. As a reprisal for her three-year long investigation into grand kleptocracy, Rewcastle Brown was targeted by a SLAPP and subject to an arrest warrant. ‘I know for a fact that solicitors suggested that it should cost a couple of hundred thousand pounds of legal bullying before I caved as an individual having to pay for my own defence”, the journalist reveals.

The way forward 

The European Commission’s anti-SLAPP Initiative, announced in April 2022, sets minimum standards that are crucial for better protection of those who expose abuses of power. ARTICLE 19 Europe now calls on the Member States to work towards the strongest possible set of rules which would include decriminalisation of defamation and safeguard our core democratic values. Together with the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) we advocate for an early dismissal mechanism, a regime of sanctions, as well as remedial and protective measures.