EU to defend journalists from malicious law suits

Investigative journalism in Europe needed “legal” protection from the growing problem of malicious law suits, the European Commission and MEPs have said.

The Commission is to put forward new measures to protect journalists later this year and these needed a “legislative component” as well as non-binding recommendations, EU values commissioner Věra Jourová said on Thursday (3 June).

These could be based on article 81 of the EU treaty, which defends freedom of competition in the single market, she said.

“Without a solid legal basis to act, we won’t be able to design a proposal that meets the test for EU intervention and which also convinces member states,” she added, however.

Jourová was speaking to MEPs in Brussels by video-link from Prague at a hearing devoted to strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps).

Slapps are libel cases typically brought by governments, corporations, or billionaires against crusading journalists and NGOs.

They are designed to “curtail free speech and silence those who, by their work, seek to expose the truth,” Jourová noted.

“No one in Europe should be afraid of doing their job,” the EU commissioner said.

But they are afraid in countries such as Poland, Romania, and Slovenia, according to Paulina Milewska, from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, an NGO in Leipzig, Germany.

The Polish government has launched some 75 Slapp-type law suits, mostly against media, in recent years, she told MEPs on Thursday.

An aide to Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša has launched 39 against three journalists and the Romanian Orthodox Church is using them to go after journalists who exposed paedophiles in its ranks, Milewska said.

People also felt “intimidated” in Malta, where journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in 2017 after decades of fighting Slapps, her son, Matthew Caruana Galizia, told the European Parliament (EP) hearing.

There was widespread abuse in France and Italy, left-wing French MEP Manon Aubry said.

It is happening in the EU capital, Brussels, where EUoberver has faced two Slapps.

And even journalists in safe jurisdictions, such as Sweden, are being dragged through the courts in litigation-friendly ones, such as the UK, Annelie Östlund, a Swedish journalist whose life was made a misery by an energy firm, told the EP.

It remains to be what Jourová’s anti-Slapp proposal will look like, in an environment where several EU states, such as Hungary, Poland, or Slovenia, want to keep media and civil society on a short leash.

But MEPs from across the floor on Thursday indicated she would have cross-party support for a legally binding “directive”.

“We need legislation,” Roberta Metsola, a Maltese centre-right MEP who is also drafting a report on Slapps said.

“If I claim something I have to be able to prove it, so it’s balance of the interests and intentions of those who take me to court,” Yana Toom, an Estonian liberal MEP who was a journalist for 20 years, also said.

But that balance was being overturned in Europe, she warned. “By silencing one journalist, you can silence many more at the same time. People are scared,” Toom said.

For their part, Australia, Canada, and the US already had model anti-slaps legislation in place, MEPs noted.

These mandate judges to quickly dismiss patently malicious suits and even fine Slapp perpetrators.

And for his part, Justin Borg-Barthet, a Maltese law professor at Aberdeen University in Scotland, said it was high time Europe joined the group.

“They [Slapps] do require legal intervention and the EU has the [legal] capacity to do this,” he told Thursday’s EP hearing.

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