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Coalition calls on Commission to crack down on abusive lawsuits

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The Coalition against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) presented a petition of more than 200,000 signatures calling for action against abusive lawsuits filed with the purpose of shutting down critical journalism, advocacy and whistleblowing - also known as ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’ (SLAPPs). 

CASE was founded to counter the growing number of vexatious, abusive lawsuits. European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová, who will present an anti-SLAPP initiative, expected in March 2022, thanked the group for raising public awareness of the issue. However, she also highlighted that the initiative had not been well received by justice ministers.

Jourová described it as a ‘David and Goliath’ problem where individual freelance journalists or activists were being drawn into lengthy and costly lawsuits aimed at silencing criticism. 

The situation is complex and the Commission intends to present a proposal that combines legislative and non-legislative measures. The Commission’s role is most obvious where there are cross-border issues, but in examining the issue justice ministries across Europe will have to examine their own situation. 

Jourová said that as the Commissioner who was responsible for justice, it was a particularly bitter pill to swallow when justice systems were being used to knock down those who are defending human rights, in effect to stop justice being carried out.

Forum shopping

The case of Okke Ornstein, a Dutch journalist who was targeted for his work exposing corruption in Panama, shows how someone can be pursued through different jurisdictions. 

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Ornstein was imprisoned for criminal defamation after writing about convicted fraudster Monte Friesner in 2016. Upon his return to the Netherlands following his release, he then faced multiple civil defamation lawsuits filed by Friesner’s associates.

Ornstein pointed to the situation to the case of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was the victim of several SLAPP suits, her children are still fighting them. 

Time, money and energy

Veronika Feicht of the Munich Environmental Institute spoke about how her colleague Karl Bär who was sued by the agricultural minister of the autonomous province of Bolzano and more than 1370 farmers when he shone a light on the high pesticide use in the apple industry in Northern Italy. This sort of legal process places a heavy burden on small organisations and individuals. 

Kamil Maczuga, who  has co-authored the Atlas of Hate (AoH) research along with Jakub Gawron, Paulina Pająk and Paweł Preneta, is being sued for defamation by several  municipalities after having included them on the interactive map monitoring Anti-LGBT declarations made by local Polish authorities. 

“In Poland, strategic lawsuits are a common tool used to threaten, silence and humiliate activists and journalists,” said Maczuga. “Atlas of Hate is being sued by seven local governments for condemning their discrimination against LGBT people, and the battle is not fair, well-paid lawyers and public authorities are targeting a small group of activists working on a voluntary basis. We need an EU anti-SLAPP law. SLAPPs corrode democratic values such as freedom of speech and the rule of law.”

Press freedom

“The growing use of gag lawsuits by powerful businessmen and politicians to silence journalists and shield themselves from public scrutiny is a threat to press freedom, to the public’s right to be informed and beyond that to democracy,” said Julie Majerczak, Reporters Without Borders. “This scrutiny is the lifeblood of healthy democratic societies. The reality is that for every journalist threatened with violence in Europe, a hundred more are silenced discreetly by letters of threats sent by law firms. This situation must stop. We call on the European Commission to propose a strong EU directive that deters SLAPPers.”

Model anti-SLAPP law

Given the threat to fundamental rights posed by SLAPPs, CASE considers a strong EU anti-SLAPP law necessary to protect democratic values, such as freedom of expression and the right to protest across the EU. An anti-SLAPP EU directive, as detailed in the Model EU Directive drafted by the CASE coalition, would provide a high and uniform level of protection against SLAPPs in all EU countries and serve as a model across the continent.

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