The European Parliament sent a strong message last week, that something needs to be done against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
This newsroom has written many-a-time about the threat of SLAPP lawsuits and the chilling effect they can have on journalists. Such lawsuits are used to silence the free press by, for instance, bringing a lawsuit against a news organization in a different country where legal costs are very high, thus meaning that the news organization in question, or the journalist, would be unable to even fight the suit due to such costs.
In a report adopted with 444 votes in favour, 48 against and 75 abstentions, MEPs proposed a series of measures to counteract the threat that SLAPPs pose to journalists, NGOs and civil society in Europe.
The EU Parliament called on the EU Commission to present a package of measures, including legislation which would include: An EU directive against SLAPPs establishing minimum standards, which should protect victims while preventing and sanctioning the misuse of anti-SLAPP measures; The prevention of ‘libel tourism’ or ‘forum shopping’ – where claimants choose to file their actions in the most favorable jurisdiction – through uniform and predictable defamation rules, and by establishing that cases should be decided by the courts in the defendant’s habitual place of residence; An EU fund to support victims of SLAPPs and their families, as well as adequate training of judges and lawyers, among other things.
The ball is now in the EU Commission’s court.
Maltese media houses and journalists have, in the past, been threatened with SLAPP lawsuits.
The Maltese government has also said it will be taking action. Prime Minister Robert Abela had said the government wants to be at the forefront of introducing anti-SLAPP legislation.
Hearing politicians finally taking the issue of SLAPP lawsuits seriously is very good indeed. One hopes that the Commission will put forward proposals quickly and that the EU Council would not freeze progress on this issue with too much bickering between the different states.
While an EU wide framework will help tackle the issue of SLAPPs within the EU, the issue of such lawsuits filed in the US and UK still remains a question mark.
Asked by The Malta Independent what provisions could be put in place to defend against SLAPP lawsuits that are filed in countries outside of the EU, Vice-President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola (who was co-reporter on the report) said that this was something that was discussed, “especially in the context of fact that a number of lawsuits are filed in the UK’s courts.” She noted that in other parts of the world there are countries, like the USA and Canada that are more advanced in legislating against SLAPP suits. She said that the legislation from the Commission would act as a blueprint on how things could be done outside the EU and it would be used as part of the EU’s political arsenal with third countries when it comes to cross border matters.
It seems from her answer that the EU would be able to try and exert pressure elsewhere to implement such measures when making other deals, so while it seems if would not be able to tackle suits filed in third countries immediately, one hopes that in the future one could see agreements struck with different countries.