European Parliament addresses abusive lawsuits against critical voices
On 10 November 2021, the European Parliament plenary adopted the joint JURI and LIBE Committee own initiative report on “Strengthening democracy, media freedom and pluralism in the EU”. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) consist in abusive litigation characterized by a disparity of power and resources between the plaintiff and the defendant with the aim to shut down critical speech by intimidating critics and draining their resources.
Fundamental rights under pressure
Media freedom and pluralism are enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 11) and in the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10). They are both a key pillar of democracy, which in turn is one of the European Union founding values according to Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union. However, the 2020 and 2021 Rule of Law Reports published by the European Commission show that physical and online threats and attacks on journalists are on the rise in several Member States and that Europe is not free from severe attacks to media freedom and pluralism. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association underlined that a country’s environment can be more or less fertile for SLAPPs. Variables include the legal costs, elasticity of laws targeting defamation and the existence of safeguards.
“We cannot stand by and watch as the rule of law is increasingly threatened, and the freedoms of expression, information and association are undermined. It is our duty to protect journalists, NGOs and civil society organisations reporting on matters of public interest. Our courts should never be a playground for rich and powerful individuals, companies or politicians, nor should they be overloaded or abused for personal gain.” – Tiemo Wölken (S&D, DE), Co-rapporteur
What is in the report
In order to address the increasing number of SLAPPs against journalists, NGOs, academics and civil society within the Union, the adopted report calls on the Commission to propose a package of both soft and hard law. Proposed legislative measures should include general rules providing protection against SLAPPs, and rules in the areas of civil and criminal justice. This includes an amendment of the Brussels I and Rome II Regulations to prevent ‘forum shopping’ by establishing that the court having jurisdiction is that of the place of residence of the defendant. The report suggests as possible legal basis for those legislative measures Articles 81, 82 or 114 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Proposed non-legislative actions include adequate training for judges and legal practitioners on SLAPPs, a specific fund to provide financial support for the victims of SLAPPs, support for independent bodies dealing with complaints from those victims, a public register of relevant court decisions and a support hub victims of SLAPPs can access to receive guidance.
The own initiative report was launched in parallel to a public consultation by the European Commission, which will feed into an upcoming initiative to tackle abusive lawsuits filed against journalists and rights defenders. The Commission is expected to present a European Media Freedom Act in 2022, aimed to safeguard the independence and pluralism of media.
Philanthropy Advocacy welcomes the report and its timely initiatives to protect civic space and the watchdog role of civil society, philanthropy and journalists. The European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL) and Philanthropy Advocacy (Dafne & EFC) have published a joint Handbook on How to Use EU Law to Protect Civic Space.
- European Parliament: Report on Strengthening democracy, media freedom and pluralism in the EU
- European Parliament Newsroom: EU rules needed against abusive lawsuits targeting critical voices
- European Parliament Legislative Train: Initiative against abusive litigation targeting journalists and rights defenders
- ECPMF: SLAPPs The Background of Stratgic Lawsuits Against Public Participation
- UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association: SLAPPs and FoAA Rights https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/FAssociation/InfoNoteSLAPPsFoAA.docx
- ECNL and Philanthropy Advocacy: Handbook on How to Use EU Law to Protect Civic Space
By Hanna Hanses, Philanthropy Advocacy
Hanna Hanses is Junior Manager at Dafne (Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe) in Brussels. Since joining Dafne in 2019, she has been part of the Legal Team of Philanthropy Advocacy, a joint initiative of Dafne and the EFC (European Foundation Centre). She holds an LLM International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex, UK, focusing her thesis on climate-induced displacement. She received her LLB Bachelor in Law from Ghent University, Belgium. Hanna brings with her a multi-cultural experience, having lived in inter alia the Democratic Republic of Congo, Switzerland and Belgium.