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Week ahead: South Pacific to New York, New York

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Journalists complained of a barrage of press conferences and briefings crowded into a single day last week - incidentally, taking place on the same day they crowd on to the TGV and return to Brussels from the Strasbourg plenary. This was on top of Commission President von der Leyen’s State of the EU address to the European Parliament on the preceding day (15 September). 

Next week promises to be a more sedate affair with parliamentarians heading off on delegation work, or to their constituencies, and the HRVP, European Commission and Council presidents popping over to New York for the UN General Assembly. The timing comes as “The West” - US, NATO and EU - relations are in a state of disarray.

The precipitous exit from Afghanistan and last week’s decision by Australia to overturn an agreement with France on submarines without notice, in favour of a deal with the US and UK, mean that tensions are running high, with France even taking the extraordinary move of recalling ambassadors from Australia and the US, as well as cancelling a gala to mark the 1781 Battle of the Virginia Capes when the French Navy helped the US deliver a decisive blow to the British Royal Navy. So much for the Macron/Biden bromance at the G7 in Cornwall.

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The results of another rigged Russian election will emerge this week, but all eyes will be on next weekend's German elections (26 September). Angela Merkel will finally be stepping down after 16 years as German Chancellor; some are very critical of her reign, but to most  - including a high proportion of the German population - she is a reassuringly solid figure who kept her head when the rest of the world was losing theirs. 

The good people of Deutsche Welle kindly laid on interpretation to English for one of the 90 minute debates between the main candidates for Chancellor: Laschet (EPP), Scholz (S&D) and Baerbock (Green). Given the importance of Germany to the rest of the EU, I gave the debate a full 15 minutes before I decided I couldn’t stand it anymore. While Scholz appears to be doing well in the polls, it looks very much like some sort of coalition will be needed, so get out your atlas of the “Flags of the World” and start looking as far afield as Jamaica, Kenya, Senegal - so that you know what everyone is wittering on about. 

Commission

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Valdis Dombrovskis, the executive vice president who covers trade, will announce a new general agreement on preferences to developing countries on Wednesday (22 September).

It is anticipated that Borrell - despite seemingly endless meetings in NYC - will also announce an EU strategic approach to support disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants. 

Council 

There will be informal councils on energy and transport (21-23 September), on consumer affairs (23 September) and a General Affairs Council on Tuesday (21 September) which will address the draft agenda for the European Council on 21-22 October; the current situation regarding EU COVID-19 co-ordination; EU-UK relations; the draft work programme for 2022; and, the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Parliament

For the Parliament, a Civil Liberties Committee delegation will travel to Slovakia and Bulgaria to look into developments on media freedom and protection of journalists as well as respect of rule of law. In Bratislava, MEPs are expected to meet with civil society representatives and top government officials. MEPs will also meet the family of murdered journalist Jan Kuciak’s and his partner Martina Kusnirova and a group of journalists. In Sofia, MEPs will meet a group of journalists. Both visits will be wound up by a press conference (Bratislava - 21 September, Sofia - 23 September).

The Foreign Affairs Committee will visit Denmark, Greenland and Iceland to discuss the various aspects of Arctic policy with, among others, ministers and MPs as well as researchers and scientists working on EU-funded projects.

The Committee of Inquiry on the Protection of Animals during Transport (ANIT) will travel to Bulgaria to see first-hand the main difficulties EU countries are facing in enforcing current rules on animal welfare, including on the export of animals to non-EU countries. They will meet the minister of agriculture, some of Bulgaria’s veterinary experts, and visit the Bulgaria-Turkey border.

European Parliament

MEPs want protection for media, NGOs and civil society from abusive lawsuits

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The EU needs rules against vexatious legal actions intended to silence critical voices, according to the Parliament’s Civil Liberties and Legal Affairs committees, JURI  LIBE.

In a draft report endorsed on Thursday (14 October) with 63 votes for, nine against, and 10 abstentions, MEPs propose measures to counteract the threat that Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) pose to journalists, NGOs and civil society.

MEPs regret that no member state has yet enacted targeted legislation against SLAPPs, and they worry about the effect of these lawsuits on EU values and the internal market. In the report, they highlight the frequent imbalance of power and resources between claimants and defendants, which undermines the right to a fair trial. MEPs are particularly concerned about SLAPPs being funded from state budgets, and their use in combination with other state measures against independent media outlets, journalism and civil society.

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Measures to protect victims and sanction abusers

The draft report adopted by the Committees calls on the Commission to analyse best practices currently applied outside the EU to SLAPPs, and present a package of measures, including legislation. These should, according to MEPs, include:

  • An ambitious legal framework in the upcoming Media Freedom Act;
  • the prevention of ‘libel tourism’ or ‘forum shopping’ through uniform and predictable defamation rules, and by establishing that cases should be decided by the courts (and according to the laws) of the defendant’s habitual place of residence;
  • rules on early dismissal by the courts so that SLAPPs can be stopped quickly based on objective criteria, such as the number and nature of lawsuits or actions brought by the claimant, the choice of jurisdiction and law, or the existence of a clear and burdensome imbalance of power;
  • sanctions for the claimant if they fail to justify why their action is not abusive, rules to ensure the consideration of abusive motives even if early dismissal is not granted, and the payment of costs and damages suffered by the victim;
  • safeguards against combined SLAPPs, i.e. those combining criminal and civil liability charges, and measures to ensure that defamation (which is a criminal offence in most member states, despite calls for its decriminalisation by the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) cannot be used for SLAPPs;
  • an EU directive establishing minimum standards, which should protect victims while preventing and sanctioning the misuse of anti-SLAPP measures, e.g. by authoritarian governments weaponising them to protect their government-organised NGOs, and;
  • financial aid for legal and psychological help for victims of SLAPPs and organisations assisting them, and adequate training of judges and lawyers.

Quotes

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Co-rapporteur Roberta Metsola (EPP, MT) said “The strong support for our report sends a powerful message that Parliament will safeguard the fourth pillar of our democracy. We call for mechanisms to allow for the expeditious dismissal of vexatious lawsuits and to help those affected to claim compensation. We want an EU Fund and information networks to support victims. The key issue is balance: we are targeting those who abuse our legal systems to silence or intimidate, while protecting those caught in the cross-fire, many of whom have nowhere else to turn”.

Co-rapporteur Tiemo Wölken (S&D, DE) said: “Even before they materialise, SLAPPs undermine the rule of law, the internal market, and the rights of expression, information and association. We call on the Commission to come forward with concrete and feasible legislative proposals, for example on ‘libel tourism’ and ‘forum shopping’. We also propose key non-legislative measures, such as effective financial and legal assistance, as well as psychological support and practical advice, to be provided by a ‘first aid’ one-stop-shop for victims".

Łukasz Kohut, S&D rapporteur for civil liberties, justice and home affairs, said: “The rich and the powerful, including government figures, have endless resources to weaken journalism and silence any critics through abusive lawsuits. Too many journalists, media organisations and NGOs regularly face smear campaigns through the use of these targeted lawsuits. But no one should fear legal consequences for speaking the truth. That is why the European Parliament has been urgently working to strengthen the voice of those working in the pursuit of the truth and put an end to abusive lawsuits. No effort to protect journalists or civil society is too much. With media freedom already under severe strain in the EU, we need the Commission to put proposals on the table that include binding safeguards for victims of SLAPPs. Across the EU, national governments must also fully implement the recommendations from the Council of Europe on the protection and safety of journalists. We have to act to counter any dangerous effort to undermine media freedom and democracy in the EU.”

Next steps

The draft report is expected to be tabled for a plenary vote in November.

Further information 

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European Parliament

Mobile phone roaming: MEPs back extension of free roaming in the EU

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Parliament’s Industry Committee voted in favour of extending the 'Roam like at Home' scheme for another ten years, ITRE.

The updated legislation, a follow-up to the 2017 elimination of roaming fees, also makes adjustments aiming for better roaming services for travellers.

According to the text adopted by MEPs, consumers would continue to enjoy the ability to use their mobile phones when travelling abroad in the EU with no additional fees on top of what they already pay at home.

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In addition, they would be entitled to the same quality and speed of mobile connection abroad as at home. Roaming providers would be obliged to offer roaming conditions equal to those offered domestically, if the same technologies and conditions are available on the network in the country people are visiting. MEPs want to prohibit commercial practices reducing the quality of services of regulated retail roaming services (e.g. by switching the connection from 4G to 3G).

Free access to emergency services

Access to emergency services would be provided to travellers without any additional charge - whether by call or SMS, including the transmission of caller location information. Operators would also have to provide information to roaming users about the European emergency number 112, MEPs agreed. MEPs also want people with disabilities to be able to access to emergency services without additional charges.

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Ending surcharges for intra-EU calls

MEPs also propose ending surcharges for intra-EU calls (e.g. when calling from Belgium to Italy), which are currently capped at 19 cents per minute. Users would pay only the extra costs objectively justified by the provider.

Lead MEP Angelika Winzig (EPP, AT) said: “Roam-like-at-home is an unprecedented European success story. It shows how we all directly benefit from the EU single market. We want to cut costs further and improve the quality of service for all European citizens. This is an opportunity for us to add some notable improvements, which will benefit citizens and businesses without causing disruption for mobile network operators. With this regulation we take another important step towards a true European digital single market, for a successful, strong and effective European Union of the future”.

Next steps

The new rules will need to be agreed by Parliament and Council, before they can enter into force. The report was adopted with 67 votes to 0, with 7 abstentions. MEPs voted to open negotiations with Council with 67 votes to 0 and 7 abstentions. The mandate will be announced during the 18-21 October plenary session. Council agreed its negotiating mandate on 16 June 2021. The first trilogue would then take place on the 26th of October.

Background

The Roaming Regulation established the 'Roam-Like-At-Home' (RLAH) rule that mandated the end of retail roaming charges as of 15 June 2017 in the EU. The regulation forms part of the EU digital single market achievements and is currently in force until 30 June 2022.

Five years after the adoption of the regulation in 2015, the Commission reviewed the scheme to assess its effects and the need for an extension. In its impact assessment, the Commission pointed out that market conditions do not yet appear to guarantee that free roaming can continue without regulatory intervention, and proposed to extend the rules beyond their current expiry date of 30 June 2022.

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Awards

The Pegasus Project awarded the 2021 Daphne Caruana Galizia Prize for Journalism

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On 14 October, the Daphne Caruana Prize for Journalism was awarded to the journalists from the Pegasus Project coordinated by the Forbidden Stories Consortium.

The award ceremony held in the Press Centre of the European Parliament was opened by the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli.

From 22 June to 1st September 2021, more than 200 journalists from the 27 EU countries submitted their media stories to a panel of judges.

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Representing the 29 members of the European jury, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Journalists, Anthony Bellanger, presented the 20.000 EUR prize money to the representatives of the consortium, Sandrine Rigaud and Laurent Richard.

About the winner

Forbidden Stories is a consortium of journalists whose mission is to continue the investigations of murdered, imprisoned or threatened journalists.

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Since its inception in 2017, Forbidden Stories and its partners have pursued the work of Daphne Caruana Galizia, but also of journalists murdered for their investigations into environmental crimes or Mexican cartels.

With more than 30 partner news organizations around the world and nearly 100 journalists, Forbidden Stories relies on a network that believes strongly in collaborative journalism. For its work, Forbidden Stories has won prestigious awards around the world, including the European Press Prize and the Georges Polk Award.

About the winning story

Pegasus: The new global weapon for silencing journalists • Forbidden Stories

Short summary of the winning story:

An unprecedented leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers selected for surveillance by the customers of the Israeli company NSO Group shows how this technology has been systematically abused for years. The Forbidden Stories consortium and Amnesty International had access to records of phone numbers selected by NSO clients in more than 50 countries since 2016.

Journalists from the Pegasus Project – more than 80 reporters from 17 media organizations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab – sifted through these records of phone numbers and were able to take a peak behind the curtain of this surveillance weapon, which had never been possible to this extent before.

The Forbidden Stories consortium discovered that, contrary to what NSO Group has claimed for many years, including in a recent transparency report, this spyware has been widely misused. The leaked data showed that at least 180 journalists have been selected as targets in countries like India, Mexico, Hungary, Morocco and France, among others. Potential targets also include human rights defenders, academics, businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, union leaders, diplomats, politicians and several heads of states.

For more information about the Pegasus project:

Pegasus: The new global weapon for silencing journalists • Forbidden Stories

About the Prize

The Daphne Caruana Prize was initiated by a decision of the Bureau of the European Parliament in December 2019 as a tribute to Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese anti-corruption investigative journalist and blogger who was killed in a car bomb attack in 2017.

The Prize is rewarded on a yearly basis (on the 16 October, the date Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated) to outstanding journalism that promotes or defends the core principles and values of the European Union such as human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights. This is the first year the prize has been awarded.

The Prize was opened to professional journalists and teams of professional journalists of any nationality to submit in-depth pieces that have been published or broadcast by media based in one of the 27 European Union member states. The aim is to support and highlight the importance of professional journalism in safeguarding freedom, equality and opportunity.

The independent jury was composed of representatives of the press and civil society from the 27 European member states and representatives of the main European Associations of Journalism.

The prize and the €20 000 prize money demonstrates the European Parliament’s strong support for investigative journalism and the importance of free press.

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