Earlier today, the European Parliament overwhelmingly approved a report that proposes new and concrete measures to protect journalists and citizens from abusive lawsuits designed to silence them, such as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
It was adopted in the European plenary with 444 votes in favour, 48 against and 75 abstentions.
Spearheaded by Metsola and Tiemo Wölken, the landmark report calls for a directive covering domestic and cross-border SLAPP cases within the boundaries of the EU.
Both were confident that the report will result in concrete directives that can be implemented across the EU and that it would be strong enough to face up to any outside legal challenges.
Metsola did concede there may be political challenges against anti-SLAPP lawsuits and will await a response from the EU council. However, Wolken reiterated that a general mechanism will help ensure member states’ cooperation.
The report will look to create legal pathways to dismiss SLAPP suits while also imposing penalties for people who abuse the legal system to persist with vexatious lawsuits.
A fund should also be designed to help fund journalists in the fight against SLAAP cases, like covering legal fees, for example. An online portal that will act as a one-stop shop to assist victims of SLAPP will be created.
The report will help ensure that journalists will only be allowed to be sued within their country of residence, and not face being dragged into a jurisdiction they are unfamiliar with.
Judges and lawyers will also be better trained to identify SLAPP cases through the new report, with MEPs also calling for the revision of existing legislation to reduce “libel tourism”, which is the practice of jurisdiction shopping to institute multiple lawsuits.
What are SLAPPs?
SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) have become an increasingly growing phenomenon around Europe, including Malta. They have the specific aim of silencing the defendant by subjecting the person to lengthy, burdensome and expensive lawsuits, often in another jurisdiction.
SLAPPs create an imbalance between parties and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, resulting in impinging on the respondent’s right to a fair trial.
Several journalists in Malta have faced SLAPP lawsuits or threats of SLAPP lawsuits in recent years, including Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was sued in Arizona by Pilatus Bank for millions in damages five months before her murder.
“This report is for Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed with 42 cases pending against her. It is for every media house, every journalist, every blogger and every NGO that were and are still being threatened by crooks who have everything to lose. The European Union must be a safe haven for all of them, and we need to make sure that there is no place for criminals to abuse of our systems and ourselves,” Metsola said.
A public inquiry board that found the state culpable of creating a culture of impunity that facilitated Caruana Galizia’s murder recently proposed anti-SLAPP legislation among several recommendations to help the media industry.
Nationalist MPs Jason Azzopardi, Robert Cutajar and David Agius proposed a private members’ bill to combat SLAPP back in 2018, but it has yet to be discussed in Parliament. The government shot it down at that time.
However, Prime Minister Robert Abela has recently confirmed he is consulting with the family of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia over an upcoming bill to clamp down on so-called SLAPP lawsuits.
On 4 October 2021, the European Commission launched a public consultation on EU action against abusive litigation targeting journalists and rights defenders. The Commission plans to adopt a proposal in 2022.
The consultation period is open until 10 January 2022.
This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
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