On World Press Freedom Day, the European Greens are highlighting lawsuits used to silence critics as a threat to European democracy. Journalists have faced an especially high degree of violence and harassment in the past year. This ranges from having their equipment seized and/or damaged, intimidation and even physical attacks and arrests by state police forces.
But the hostilities under which they must work don’t end there. Journalists are also met with other types of threats that endanger their lives and that of their families. The Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) is wielded by individuals and companies to keep journalists from speaking out on issues of public concern. The aim of the lawsuit is to intimidate people into silence due to the sheer cost of legal defence and exhaustion over time.
Daphne Caruana Galizia: Unveiling mass corruption in Malta
One of the most egregious examples is the case of Maltese journalist and anti-corruption activist Daphne Caruana Galizia. She started writing in 1988 and ran her own blog from 2008. Galizia was investigating networks of corruption at the highest level of the Maltese society, including PM Joseph Muscat and his ministers. Her journalism took on the institutions of Malta which had failed the Maltese people.
As a result, she was sued relentlessly through libel lawsuits in an effort to keep her silent. Eventually, she was murdered for her investigative work. “Every person in power was compromised beyond belief,” recalls one of her three sons, Matthew Caruana Galizia, “They tried framing her, they tried arresting her, they tried suing her, they couldn’t stop her using any of those means, so they just killed her.” There were 47 libel lawsuits pending against her at the time of her death.
On October 16, 2017, Daphne was driving when a remote-controlled bomb that had been placed under the driver’s seat exploded. Even after her untimely death, the family continued to be threatened and harassed, with 19 libel lawsuits being filed against them. In 2020, Matthew stated that the continued support for his mother “just shows you how important the work is of people who fight injustice.”
Lawsuits should not be able to be weaponised against journalists in a bid to prevent public scrutiny
What SLAPPs effectively amount to is a censorship mechanism sanctioned by the legal system. This does not only concern journalists - newspapers, activists, campaigning organisations, whistle-blowers, academics, and others have increasingly been targeted in order to repress their efforts of speaking truth to power and holding leaders to account. A high incidence of SLAPPs has been found across the EU. This cannot go on.
The Greens have demanded:
- The regulation of market concentration
- Transparency and the eradication of conflicts of interest in Media ownership
- EU protections for freedom of expression and information
- The appointment of a specific Commission Vice-President on media freedom, independence and pluralism
- The funding of independent and investigative journalism
- A swift and effective follow up of investigations related to EU funds or other Union competences
- Strong EU protection for journalists is available
- Ensuring a healthy advertising market that respects media freedom and protects personal privacy
- The promotion of an inclusive media sphere
On 28 April 2021, a resolution on the rule of law and press freedom was passed that aims to do exactly this. In response, German Greens MEP Sven Giegold, the financial and economic policy spokesperson of the Greens/EFA group, commented that:
“The European Parliament will not stand idly by when the rule of law and the lives of journalists are at risk. This resolution sends a strong signal to the Maltese Government and the European Commission. An overwhelming majority of elected representatives called for structural reforms and the resolute enforcement of European law. Corruption in the highest circles of government must be prosecuted without exception. (…) An independent press and the protection of journalists from SLAPP lawsuits is key to hold governments throughout Europe to account. I call on the European Commission to come forward with a legislative proposal for a European Anti-SLAPP regulation. In the meantime, the Greens/EFA have successfully introduced wording calling for domestic Anti-SLAPP legislation in Malta in this resolution.”
A coalition of NGOs, Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe, is currently also calling for European Institutions to take action against SLAPPs. Democracy requires open public debate. Action must be taken to safeguard democracy and ensure that journalists can safely conduct their work in the EU.
Photo: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo