We are at a precarious moment that may determine whether the vicious circle of targeting investigative reporters across Europe with abusive legal actions can be broken. Chilling testimonies from journalists clearly show that we urgently need a strong EU anti-SLAPP Directive that would guarantee robust protection mechanism for those who are being threatened for reporting in the public interest.
ARTICLE 19 Europe and Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT) organised a discussion on the rise in SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) and other legal threats brought against journalists at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. Our distinguished guests Bojana Jovanović, deputy editor at KRIK, and Roberto Saviano, journalist and author, reflected on how vexatious lawsuits brought by high public officials affected their work and life and took stock of the real cost of SLAPPs for civil society and the fabric of democracy.
Below you can find key takeaways from our discussion moderated by Sielke Kelner.
Watch the full recording
Serbia – SLAPPs and smears proliferated by politicians
Bojana Jovanović works for Serbian investigative media outlet KRIK, which regularly focuses on crime and corruption. Bojana noted that the ongoing erosion of press freedom and the rule of law in Serbia make journalists’ work extremely difficult. KRIK is being buried under an avalanche of SLAPP cases, both civil and criminal, meaning the outlet is forced to dedicate valuable time and money to defending themselves in court instead of fully focusing on their vital journalistic work.
‘We are currently facing 11 lawsuits, which is a lot for such a small outlet like ours. We need to deal with them every day, consulting lawyers, preparing our defence and attending court hearings’, said Bojana Jovanović.
Bojana emphasised that leading politicians, including President Aleksandar Vučić, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and ruling party MPs play an overwhelming role in enabling and facilitating the growing hostility against the independent media in Serbia. Not only do they refrain from publicly denouncing threats and attacks against journalists but they launch smears and sue reporters for critical coverage themselves.
‘We are openly attacked by top politicians almost once a month. The government uses everything in their power to silence and discredit us. Public officials call us foreign spies and criminals. They try to portray us as the bad guys for uncovering their wrongdoing. They try to shift the public focus to us to evade accountability for their actions’.
Smears and insults are regularly picked up and then amplified by state-affiliated media. Painting independent journalists as public enemies undermines their credibility and is followed by serious threats to their security. Online harassment might be translated into direct physical assault and other violent attempts to ‘neutralise’ an inconvenient journalist. One clear example is the arson attack on the home of journalist Milan Jovanović.
The ongoing erosion of press freedom and the rule of law in Serbia makes journalists’ work extremely difficult. While multiple state-backed initiatives have been launched to address the safety of journalists, their effectiveness is undermined by a lack of political will.
SLAPPs against journalists in Serbia
In these worrying circumstances of normalising the demonisation of independent journalists, SLAPPs form an effective means to further foment distrust towards public watchdogs. The goal is both to drain the financial and psychological resources of a targeted editorial team and denigrate them in the eyes of the public so that society starts questioning the reliability of the coverage under their byline.
Our report on SLAPPs in Serbia clearly demonstrates that a series of vague legal provisions, such as those pertaining to damage to honour, compounded with the growing hostility against the media provide one of the most fertile grounds in Europe to file abusive lawsuits against public watchdogs. Our recommendations to the government include a review of the provisions on defamation, elimination of vague terminology that is open to abuse, a fixed ceiling for pecuniary compensation, and training for the judiciary to apply international standards on free expression in their decision-making processes.
Just a few days before KRIK was due to receive an EU award for the best investigative story in Serbia in 2021, the team was convicted of defamation in one of the ongoing cases.
‘Such events are the best portrayal of our everyday life and work – while we are being awarded for our investigative work, powerful people close to the government are pressuring us, suing us, and trying to discredit or intimidate us,’ Bojana told us.
Italy: Politicians suing journalists try to mask the imbalance of power
Exposing the Neapolitan Camorra criminal organisation in his book Gomorrah earned Roberto Saviano wide international recognition and a top spot on the mafia bosses’ hit list. Despite death threats and his life being in imminent danger, Saviano did not give up on his reporting. Now, living under police protection, the man whose groundbreaking investigation revealed insights into the most dangerous mafia clans is facing a defamation lawsuit brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Roberto Saviano underscored that politicians claim they file lawsuits against journalists and writers as ‘ordinary citizens’. This way, they push the narrative that there is no power imbalance between the parties.
‘They want to pretend that those who criticise the government have equal means to defend themselves at hand as the politicians do’, said Saviano. ‘They hide the fact that if you are a prime minister, minister or political leader you have way more influence: press conferences, party lawyers, the possibility to put pressure on courts and judges, press supporting their political side but, most and foremost, they have immunity – as MPs have protection from legal proceedings that I don’t have.’
Saviano noted that in the Italian context, politicians don’t initiate legal disputes to prove who’s right, but rather to paint their opponent (in this case critical journalist or writer) ‘as dirty as they are’.
‘They don’t go to court to defend themselves, They don’t want to prove they are clean: they cannot claim this as they know this is not true and this would start a conversation they’re not interested in. They know very well that in our context they are all dirty and corrupt. They know in this game only the most powerful can win and these are not journalists. They want to strike first and it’s part of the Italian culture of who is smarter. Nobody cares who is fair and clean.’
Saviano also pronounced the importance of resistance and solidarity among journalists and other public watchdogs.
‘Show that you don’t believe in their lies, there is only one truth and it is not what they’re saying just to get votes. Resistance is the only way to stand and make them struggle’.
SLAPPs against journalists in Italy
Together with our partners from Media Freedom Rapid Response, ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly flagged the rising number of SLAPP cases against journalists brought by public officials in Italy. Our legal expertise compounded with key takeaways from our fact-finding mission proves that high-ranking politicians misuse defamation laws to target journalists. One of the recent examples besides Saviano’s trial is the lawsuit against Domani newspaper filed by Prime Minister Meloni herself. We have long argued that Italy must fully decriminalise defamation and reform civil defamation laws.
In the face of the growing trend of using legal actions to tank investigations into abuses of power, and in the aftermath of the killing of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 – who remains the individual with the most SLAPPs brought against her – a group of organisations came together and formed the CASE Coalition to advocate for anti-SLAPP legislation.
Joint effort to push for a robust EU Anti-SLAPP Directive
‘Our central question was: what sort of legal systems allow for such manifestly unfounded abuse of the law? And how can we step in with legal and legislative solutions that would prevent these types of cases from being allowed to go through the European Courts?’ said Sarah Clarke, Director of ARTICLE 19 Europe and a member of the CASE Steering Committee.
The CASE Coalition was formed with two initial main objectives: to pass the Council of Europe’s anti-SLAPP Recommendations (which will be published at the end of 2023) and to see through the enactment of an EU Anti-SLAPP Directive.
‘We put a model anti-SLAPP Directive before the European Commission. The central aim is to ensure that cases can be dismissed at an early moment as we can see the aim of SLAPP cases is to force the defendants into drawn-out proceedings,’ said Sarah Clarke. ‘We also want to ensure that plaintiffs pay for using abusive methods through the courts and to put an end to libel tourism as we see SLAPP litigants filing cases in plaintiffs-friendly jurisdictions such as in the UK. Another key issue is to ensure that SLAPP targets are provided with sufficient support: legal, financial and psychological.’
We are approaching a pivotal moment in terms of anti-SLAPP advocacy, as a compromise anti-SLAPP proposal unveiled by the EU Swedish presidency generated great disappointment among civil society groups. The draft waters down the original proposal that set the bare minimum needed to tackle SLAPPs.
‘All the important elements are at risk and key protections have been removed or rendered useless – including the early dismissal mechanism and compensatory damages. What was deemed Daphne’s Law in its current state would not protect Daphne at all’, said Sarah Clarke.
Sarah Clarke and Sielke Kelner addressed the journalistic community and encouraged them to convey the message, mobilise their peers to speak up, cover the issue of SLAPPs and reach out for help and assistance.
‘This is a huge story: a law designed to protect journalists might end up being completely hollowed out. We need to raise this issue now, or we might end up losing the key opportunity to put a stop to those abuses’, concluded Sarah Clarke.