In anti-SLAPP proposals, MEPs want vexatious lawsuits dismissed and plaintiffs punished

MEPs are proposing introducing minimum standards to protect journalists and NGOs against SLAPP suits across the EU, empowering judges to dismiss vexatious lawsuits and to levy sanctions against those who file them

Nationalist MEP and EP vice-president Roberta Metsola
Nationalist MEP and EP vice-president Roberta Metsola
In anti-SLAPP proposals, MEPs want vexatious lawsuits dismissed and plaintiffs punished

MEPs Roberta Metsola and Tiemo Woelken have unveiled joint LIBE-JURI Committee proposals on EU-wide legislation aimed at prohibiting libel tourism in the form of SLAPP lawsuits against journalists and NGOs.

The proposals also call for the empowerment of judges to take a priori decisions to immediately dismiss what they consider to be vexatious lawsuits, while also seeing those filing them sanctioned.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are lawsuits primarily intended to cause a chilling effect on critical media by burdening them with costs and expenses. 

This is usually done by taking libel action in other jurisdictions that levy high libel fines and where court costs are prohibitive.

The Maltese media stands at particular risk of such lawsuits filed in foreign jurisdictions, past experience has shown, and libel fines are capped at €11,000, for good reason given Malta’s particular economies of scale.

As such, the legislation is seen as essential for Malta’s media, which, given their size, are prime targets for SLAPP lawsuits by large corporations.

Rapporteurs Maltese EPP MEP Roberta Metsola and S&D German MEP Tiemo Wolken on Tuesday spoke about the set of EU-wide proposals – which, they foresee, would be made binding across the bloc – after a joint hearing of European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE)  and the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI).

Metsola set a timeline of seeing a first vote on a final report by October, which she said would be a “watershed moment for freedom of press, of expression and the protection of journalists.

“The freedom of journalists to do their jobs cannot be uncoupled from the protection of our democracy. We are talking about two sides of the same coin. Protecting journalists and the truth means protecting our way of life.”

Journalists, civil society activists and NGOs, she said, are all facing threats “designed to influence their work, to silence critical stories, and to ultimately make journalists the enemy. This unacceptable.

“SLAPPs are abuse and we are determined to take a stand against them. We have seen forum shopping in libel cases taken to the extreme. This is not limited to one member state or another, we have seen similar cases to varying degrees across the whole EU.”

Noting how such lawsuits cost great sums y just to be filed and then fought in foreign jurisdictions, Metsola said journalists are far too often faced with a choice: stop reporting the facts, or face a costly and lengthy lawsuit in another country.

“Journalists often lose the case before they even start. In some member states, cases are filed against them in their personal capacities [such as in the case of Malta]. This means they face the prospect that if they leave if they leave a media house, mounting a defence would become practically impossible, and these individuals get what they want: the story is effectively killed.”

Judges should be able to throw out vexatious lawsuits a priori

The proposals also call for a system whereby judges would be able to take a priori decisions that would see obviously vexatious lawsuits dismissed quickly, but, Metsola said, that means investing in training and creating systems.

One of the main difficulties faced by the victims of such lawsuits, Metsola said, is not only the financial incapacity to be able to fight them, but the cost in resources that are imposed on courts and media houses in trying to stop them.

“We also find that judges and lawyers in the EU having dealt with such specific cases are very few and far between because we are not only longer talking about what appears in the print media and how to protect it but also the way social media has evolved.  So we are dealing with a very new type of framework that we need to navigate.”

Additionally, she said, the aim was to introduce sanctions against those “who abuse our libel and defamation laws to try to target journalists.

“We also need to see how we can square the circle of new media being online and therefore accessible everywhere, with the rights of journalists to be able to defend themselves where they are based.

“We stand in line with the truth seekers and our values must be reflected in our laws.”

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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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