SLAPPs: draft report calls for 'effective penalties against abusive actions' – Metsola

A cross-party draft European Parliament report drawn up by Maltese MEP and EP First Vice-President Roberta Metsola and S&D MEP Tiemo Wölken provides mechanisms allowing courts to summarily dismiss, and to provide effective penalties against, abusive SLAPP actions

European Parliament First Vice-President Roberta Metsola
European Parliament First Vice-President Roberta Metsola

European Parliament rapporteurs tasked with drawing up new measures to protect journalists are calling for direct EU legislation to safeguard journalists from abusive Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuits filed to silence them, in their report published Monday.

The parliamentary process is being spearheaded by European Parliament First Vice-President Roberta Metsola (EPP) and German MEP Tiemo Wölken (S&D) and aims at putting an end to SLAPP lawsuits across Europe.

Metsola explains of the recommendations they have come up with: “Our report provides concrete proposals that aim to reduce SLAPPs around Europe. In particular, since no EU member state has yet introduced any anti-SLAPP legislation, the report calls for an EU directive, which would provide minimum safeguards for media freedom and freedom of expression in general.”

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are primarily intended to create a chilling effect on critical media by burdening them with excessive court costs and threats of exorbitant monetary claims.   This is usually done by taking libel action in other jurisdictions which levy higher libel fines and where court costs are prohibitive.

Metsola adds, “Moreover, the report recommends mechanisms that would allow courts to be able to dismiss SLAPP suits summarily and provide effective penalties against abusive SLAPP actions.

“It recommends a revision of existing legislation in order to reduce forum shopping or ‘libel tourism'.

“It also includes a number of complementary ‘soft’ measures such as an EU fund for victims of SLAPPs, adequate training for judges and lawyers, as well as a ‘one-stop-shop’ information hub for victims of SLAPP suits.”

The Maltese media stands at particular risk of such lawsuits filed in foreign jurisdictions, as past experience with the now infamous Pilatus Bank has shown. Libel fines in Malta are capped at €11,000 in consideration of economies of scale, and as such, the legislation currently being ironed out is seen as essential for Malta’s media, which, given its size, is a prime target for SLAPP lawsuits where fines can range into the tens of millions or euros, and where defending oneself in a foreign jurisdiction can cost hundreds of thousands.

‘Journalism should not come with a health warning or risk of financial ruin at the hands of crooks‘

“The key here is balance,” Metsola explains. “Legitimate claims must, of course, be protected. It is the claims which are manifestly unfounded or which are clear abuses of process that must be addressed - those that are not designed to protect rights but to silence. These are all measures that we can introduce and measures that journalists have been calling for.

“Journalism should not come with a health warning or risk of financial ruin at the hands of crooks. Those who abuse our legal systems - often through forum shopping across borders - to try to silence journalists should find no protection in our Europe. It is time to boost our legislative armoury, and that is what we want to achieve with this cross-party, cross-committee report,” Metsola said.

SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) have become an increasingly growing phenomenon around Europe. They rarely have a legitimate claim, and they are barely geared towards obtaining a favourable judicial outcome. Instead, they have the specific aim of silencing the defendant by subjecting the person to lengthy, burdensome and expensive lawsuits, often in another jurisdiction.

Caruana Galizia lawsuits serve as report’s cases in point

The report makes specific reference to the lawsuits filed against assassinated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia: “SLAPPs have become an increasingly widespread practice used against journalists, academics, civil society and NGOs, as demonstrated by many cases throughout the Union, such as the chilling case of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was reportedly facing 47 civil and criminal defamation lawsuits, (resulting in the freezing of her assets) on the day of her strongly condemned assassination on 16 October 2017, and the lawsuits her heirs continue to face.”

It highlights two other cases the rapporteurs describe as “illustrative and alarming” – that of the Swedish Realtid Media “which was repeatedly threatened with a lawsuit in a different jurisdiction from where the reporting in question took place”, and that of the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, “which continues to be sued by a number of public entities and officials on a regular basis”.

What’s next?

The next step will be the presentation of the anti-SLAPP report by co-rapporteurs Metsola and Wölken to the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and the other committee on Legal Affairs.

MEPs within the two committees will then have the opportunity to submit their amendments to the text. 

The full report can be found at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/CJ03-PR-693861_EN.pdf

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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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