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Women and legal rights

EU Commission trying to stop strategic lawsuits against journalists

Trying to silence journalists and human rights defenders by suing them is increasing in the EU, the European Commission said when presenting a proposed directive to improve protection of journalists and human rights defenders from abusive court proceedings.

“Strategic lawsuits against public participation, commonly known as ‘SLAPPs’, are a particular form of harassment used primarily against journalists and human rights defenders to prevent or penalise speaking up on issues of public interest. The proposed directive covers SLAPPs in civil matters with cross-border implications”, the Commission said.

The directive will enable judges to swiftly dismiss manifestly unfounded lawsuits against journalists and human rights defenders. It also establishes several procedural safeguards and remedies, such as compensation for damages, and dissuasive penalties for launching abusive lawsuits.

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The Commission is also adopting a complementary Recommendation to encourage member states to align their rules with the proposed EU law also for domestic cases and in all proceedings, not only civil matters.

With these measures we are helping to protect those who take risks and speak up when the public interest is at stake – when they report for example on allegations of money laundering and corruption, environmental and climate matters or other issues that are important to us all”, says the Commission’s vice president Věra Jourová.

The Commission says the safeguards are expected to benefit in particular journalists and persons or organisations engaged in defending fundamental rights and a variety of other rights, such as environmental and climate rights, women’s rights, LGBTIQ rights, the rights of the people with a minority racial or ethnic background, labour rights or religious freedoms.

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It aims to protect all persons engaged in public participation on matters of public interest.

“The safeguards have been targeted to ensure the balance of access to justice and privacy rights with the protection of freedom of expression and information.”

The main elements of the proposal are:

  • Early dismissal of a manifestly unfounded court proceedings – courts will be able to take an early decision to dismiss the proceedings if a case is manifestly unfounded. In such a situation, the burden of proof will be on the claimant to prove that the case is not manifestly unfounded;
  • Procedural costs – it will be for the claimant to bear all the costs, including the defendant’s lawyers’ fees, if a case is dismissed as abusive;
  • Compensation of damages – the target of SLAPP will have a right to claim and obtain full compensation for the material and immaterial damage;
  • Dissuasive penalties – to prevent claimants from starting abusive court proceedings, the courts will be able to impose dissuasive penalties on those who bring such cases to the court.
  • Protection against third-country judgements – Member States should refuse recognition of a judgment coming from a non-EU country, against a person domiciled in a Member State, if the proceedings would be found to be manifestly unfounded or abusive under the Member State’s law. The target will also be able to ask for compensation of the damages and the costs in a Member State where he or she is domiciled in.

The proposed Directive will have to be negotiated and adopted by the European Parliament and the Council before it can become EU law.

As a tragic example of the use of SLAPP, the Commission mentions Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was facing more than 40 lawsuits at the time of her assassination in 2017.

“The aim of SLAPPs lawsuits is not to access justice but to harass, intimidate and silence defendants with the length of procedures, the financial pressure and the threat of criminal sanctions.”

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