Event wrap: How to tackle SLAPPs against public watchdogs?

Event wrap: How to tackle SLAPPs against public watchdogs? - Media


NEW: SLAPPs against journalists across Europe, a report by Media Freedom Rapid Response

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Powerful and well-resourced individuals across Europe are increasingly abusing the justice system to harass or silence journalists and public watchdogs who expose their wrongdoings. Known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs, these lawsuits help those in power to evade public scrutiny. On 16 March, 2022, experts, journalists and activists discussed the growing threat that SLAPPs pose to democracy.   


The online panel ‘How to tackle SLAPPs against public watchdogs in Europe?’  featured Věra Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission, Catherine Belton, journalist and author of ‘Putin’s People’, Veronika Feicht, campaigner for the Munich Environmental Institute, Sarah Clarke from ARTICLE 19, and Corinne Vella from the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation. It was facilitated by Charlie Holt from Greenpeace International. Speakers elaborated on the dire impact of SLAPPs based on personal testimonies, discussed key findings from two new reports on SLAPPs in Europe by ARTICLE 19 and the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (authored by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation) as well as forthcoming EU measures. You can watch the recording on our Youtube channel and Facebook page


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Robust EU-wide measures needed  

The speakers all agreed that the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine made it abundantly clear that the protection of journalists and independent media is of the utmost importance. Panellists also highlighted that, considering that SLAPPs are a product of an abuse of existing legislations, there is an urgent need to review legal framework and introduce robust, strong measures that deter vexatious lawsuits from being filed in the first place. Starting the discussion, Vice President Jourová elaborated on the upcoming EU-wide measures to curb SLAPPs and stressed that the European Commission’s aim is to propose ambitious measures, both binding and non-legislative, to protect journalists and other public watchdogs, encompassing both national and cross-border SLAPP cases. “We want to cover a wide range of issues including awareness-raising, training for journalists, human rights defenders and judges, as well as support for targeted individuals,” Jourová said, and added that key findings of reports authored by ARTICLE 19 and the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, as well as thorough analysis of cases, will make strong contributions to the ongoing discussion on EU-wide anti-SLAPP measures. The European Commission is also looking at developing a system of monitoring SLAPP cases across Europe. “Once the initiative is presented, we will need the joint efforts of EU institutions, member states and civil society to make sure implementation of the measures will make a difference.” Jourová then outlined one of the main challenges in drafting such legislation, which must rely on very precise, rigid definitions of groups that are entitled to protection. She also stressed the importance of referring to the very core definition of ‘public interest’ activities.

All speakers agreed that while most cases are brought at the national level, it is crucial to look into cross-border prosecution and – in particular – engage UK politicians, lawmakers and civil society in the conversation, as there is a noticeable trend of bringing lawsuits against public watchdogs to London courts. ARTICLE 19’s Sarah Clarke pointed out that several UK law firms have developed aggressive tactics to bully journalists on behalf of wealthy clients. “It’s crucial to name and shame law firms profiting from these strategies,”she said. 


SLAPPs as a convenient tool to bully and bankrupt public watchdogs 

The ‘name and shame’ approach was also mentioned by journalist Catherine Belton, who has been targeted by multiple defamation lawsuits filed in the UK as a reprisal for her book ‘Putin’s People’. Belton referred to these cases as being the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as they came amidst a broader trend of attempts to silence and threaten journalists who investigate President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The multi-pronged attack against Catherne Belton started with Russian billionaire Roman Abramovic, whose complaint related to, among others, a suggestion that his purchase of Chelsea Football Club was directed by the Russian president.

“We were targeted for something that we believed was carefully written especially since the book always contained a denial regarding the purchase from a person close to Abramovich,” she said. Belton regarded  Abramovich’s threats as an unprecedented attack, which was then followed by other similar suits. “My editor told me it looked like a concerted attack against me and my book,” she said. The series of costly and lengthy lawsuits resulted in the removal of a few extracts and the softening of the language in some parts of the book. “We agreed to remove certain phrases in light of the growing sheer cost of the continuing legal battles in multiple cases,” Belton told the audience, adding that fighting five different cases in the UK courts had already cost HarperCollins £1.5 million. Without a settlement, wealthy plaintiffs could have easily dragged out the proceedings, which would have generated even more costs and further impeded the journalist’s work. “It feels like the system is against you from the start and you don’t stand a chance,” Belton said. “Many UK media organisations agree to censor themselves due to the huge cost of such claims.”

Veronika Feicht from the Munich Environmental Institute also highlighted the troubling issue of self-censorship in light of potential libel cases.“We thoroughly check our materials multiple times and subconsciously assess whether they might be too confrontational. However, there is an immediate reflection that we cannot let ourselves be affected by a threat of litigation. We need to carry on our work.” The Munich Environmental Institute helped initiate a petition calling for an EU-wide anti-SLAPP law, and Feicht was part of The Coalition against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) delegation that met with Vice President Jourová in February to deliver more than 200,000 signatures in support of the law.

Feicht’s team is strongly engaged in anti-SLAPP advocacy as they themselves experienced first-hand a criminal defamation lawsuit filed by a provincial agricultural minister following their anti-pesticide awareness campaign. This claim was then joined by more than 1300 farmers which, she recalled, made the lawsuit particularly threatening. “In case of conviction, all of these plaintiffs would be able to seek financial compensation from us and that could amount to millions.” Feicht emphasised that her relatively small organisation needed to allocate massive financial, human and time resources to work on the defence, as well as to galvanise public pressure by organising an awareness campaign for this blatant violation of freedom of expression. At that time, the whole team was solely focused on activities related to the case and was unable to carry out their daily work. “The efforts to keep public pressure did pay off and the complaints were eventually withdrawn. However, given the large number of plaintiffs, this process also took months.” Veronika Feicht highlighted the importance of granting a defendant the right to report a case to a judge if there is a chance that a lawsuit amounts to a SLAPP case, as well as the importance of introducing a possibility to penalise individuals who notoriously file such cases.


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What are the main trends in SLAPP cases and how can we address them?

All the panellists agreed that another crucial measure to curb SLAPPs would be an early dismissal of vexatious lawsuits, and ARTICLE 19 also calls for this vital, urgent measure in its report on SLAPP litigation, as well as calling for a decriminalisation of defamation. The report is based on in-depth research on SLAPP litigation against journalists in 11 countries across Europe. ARTICLE 19’s Head of Europe and Central Asia Programmes Sarah Clarke pointed out a clear, overall trend of the escalation of SLAPP cases, which are taken predominantly at the national level. “While the measures by the European Commission will go to the heart of cross-border cases, a huge amount of pressure is now necessary at the states’ level as no European country currently has an anti-SLAPP legislation.” Clarke highlighted a severe imbalance of power in SLAPP cases. “All the cases analysed in the report were brought by politicians and business people with considerable financial resources for whom bringing a lawsuit is simply a cost of doing business, while the defendants are independent journalists and media outlets who very often need to fight multiple cases at the same time.” Clarke reiterated that the aim for SLAPPs is not to win a case but rather to drain journalists financially, affect their mental health and finally force them into shutting down critical reporting. “Media rarely recover financial costs, let alone the time sacrificed to defend themselves. Even if a journalist prevails, at the end it is often a pyrrhic victory – that’s why the process itself is a punishment.” However, in many instances, cases are not even filed. The mere threat of litigation may have a chilling effect and force journalists to self-censor.

Vice President Jourova suggested that EU-wide anti-SLAPP measures be called ‘Daphne’s law’ to pay tribute to murdered Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was herself facing 35 SLAPP cases as a reprisal for her reporting into crime and corruption. Caruana Galizia’s assasination was a turning point that led to increased international attention and extensive effort to monitor and document SLAPP cases.  

“The research documented something that we already knew from Daphne’s experience and proved that she was singled out as a target”, said Corinne Vella, who presented key findings of a report on SLAPPs in Europe that analyses more than 500 cases from 29 countries, authored by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation on behalf of the CASE Coalition. The research found that Caruana Galizia was the most targeted individual out of all the analysed cases and that Malta has the highest number of SLAPP cases per capita, which shows that the culture of filing legal complaints to silence criticism is still prevalent in the country.

It is a positive sign that public awareness of SLAPPs has grown in recent years. However, Vella noted there is still a lot to do in terms of ensuring full understanding of such lawsuits and their long-term implications. Corinne Vella agreed with other panellists that the law is notoriously misused to file vexatious lawsuits even in strong European democracies. She also noted that this study is not an exhaustive survey of SLAPP cases across the continent. Since SLAPPs have a chilling effect and aim to silence critical voices, many examples of legal harassment never come to light. ”The problem that we documented in the report is definitely greater than what we were able to analyse,” she said. Crucially, she highlighted that the chilling effect goes beyond the defendants themselves. “Behind each person targeted by SLAPPs, there are groups of others who will think twice before they speak up. We know it from Daphne’s experience.”