This opinion piece, originally published on 16 November 2020, has been co-authored by a group of international NGOs including Human Rights House Foundation, Greenpeace, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, Transparency International, and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). The English version has been made available exclusively to EURACTIV.
One hot spring afternoon in Malta, a journalist drove up to her house to find a court marshall duct-taping hundreds of sheets of paper to her front gate. Her family’s two guard dogs were barking uncontrollably and snapped at the marshall through the bars of the gate, but he was determined.
The orders from the court were that the journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, must be served with 19 defamation lawsuits filed against her, in one go, by a wealthy and powerful business figure. A few months later she was dead, murdered by a remotely-triggered car bomb.
We are a group of civil society organisations that consider this to be the most egregious case of SLAPPs we have seen so far, aggravated by the fact that the cases have continued after Caruana Galizia’s death against her widower and three sons.
“SLAPP” stands for Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation. It’s a form of legal harassment designed to intimidate critical voices into silence. Expensive and unscrupulous law firms market this attack-dog service to powerful and wealthy individuals who can afford to drag on abusive proceedings for years just to shield themselves from unwanted public scrutiny.
This scrutiny is the lifeblood of healthy democratic societies. The European Court of Human Rights and other national and regional courts have consistently and explicitly recognised in their judgments the important role a free press, and more broadly civil society, plays in holding the powerful to account.
Their judgments reaffirm the obligation states have to create an environment that is conducive to free speech. Because without this, democracy weakens and dies.
The holes in our laws that allow powerful people to hammer their critics into submission are a hole in European democracy. Cases of abuse pepper the continent.
Poland’s second-biggest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, has received over 55 legal threats and lawsuits by a number of actors, including from Poland’s ruling party, since 2015.
French businessman Vincent Bolloré and companies affiliated with the Bollore Group have blanketed journalists and NGOs in libel suits to stop them covering his business interests in Africa.
In Spain, meat producer Coren is demanding €1 million in damages from an environmental activist for criticising its waste management practices, having previously threatened activists and scientists who were researching nitrate levels in its local waters.
The people we depend on for information about what is happening around us are being distracted, impeded, or entirely blocked from pursuing their work by these costly and resource-intensive legal attacks.
The situation is becoming skewed beyond recognition. When it comes to certain people, governments, companies and topics, it’s not writers, film makers or journalists who decide what we read, watch and talk about.
It’s not even the courts, for SLAPPs rarely make it to a hearing, let alone a court judgment. Rather, it’s the oligarchs and their associates in politics, through the lawyers they pay, who are shaping the narrative and preventing the truth from emerging.
We’ve seen a worrying pattern emerge in Europe of government officials or beneficiaries of large public contracts adopting the tactics of celebrities and oligarchs to shield themselves from the heightened level of scrutiny that their positions or financial links to government warrant.
The fact that the threats are often cross-border ratchets up the costs for journalists and activists, who find themselves summoned to court far from home in Europe’s most expensive legal jurisdictions.
Awareness of this problem is growing. European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová has promised to “look into all possible options” to counter the threat SLAPPs pose to European democracy.
One promising solution lies in the institutions of the European Union, and it could help realter the balance between pursuers of SLAPPs and the public’s right to be informed of matters in the public interest.
EU-wide legislation should be adopted to protect people across the European Union from SLAPPs. This has to be a priority.
As in other parts of the world, rules should be in place across the EU to allow SLAPP suits to be dismissed at an early stage of proceedings, to sanction SLAPP litigants for abusing the law and the courts, and to provide measures to allow victims to defend themselves.
When we consider the importance of public watchdogs such as investigative journalists, activists, and whistleblowers to the rule of law and the fight against corruption, the absence of safeguards is a threat not only to press freedom but to the proper functioning of Europe’s internal market and, increasingly, to Europe’s democratic life.
The reality is that for every journalist or activist threatened with violence in Europe, a hundred more are silenced discreetly by letters sent by law firms, perverting laws meant to protect the reputations of the innocent from attacks by the powerful.
SLAPPs are a far less barbaric means of silencing someone than a car bomb or a bullet to the head, but their silencing effect is often just as destructive.
Access Info Europe – Helen Darbishire, Executive Director
Amnesty International – Eve Geddie – Head of European Institutions Office and Advocacy Director
ARTICLE 19 – Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia
Blueprint for Free Speech – Suelette Dreyfus
Centre for Free Expression (CFE) (Canada) – James L. Turk, Director,
CEE Bankwatch Network
Chceme zdravú krajinu (“We want a healthy country”, Slovakia) -Michal Daniška
Citizens Network Watchdog Poland – Katarzyna Batko-Tołuć, Programme Director
Civil Liberties Union For Europe – Balázs Dénes, Executive Director
Civil Rights Defenders (CRD) – John Stauffer, Deputy Executive Director
Civil Society Europe – Carlotta Besozzi
Clean Air Action Group (Hungary) – András Lukács
Climaxi, Filip De Bodt
Committee to Protect Journalists – Tom Gibson
Common Weal (Scotland), Robin McAlpine, Director
Corporate Europe Observatory – Nina Holland
Defend Democracy – Alice Stollmeyer, Executive Director
Earth League International
Environmental Paper Network (EPN) – Luisa Colasimone, coordinator EPN International
Estonian Forest Aid (Eesti Metsa Abiks), Martin Luiga, international cooperation coordinator
ePaństwo Foundation, Krzysztof Izdebski
Eurocadres – Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff – Martin Jefflén, President of Eurocadres
European Center For Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL)
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Flutura Kusari, legal advisor
European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ), Christopher Patz
European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Francesca Carlsson, Legal Officer
European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), President, Mogens Blicher Bjerregård
European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), Jan Willem Goudriaan, General Secretary
European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Isabelle Schömann, ETUC Confederal Secretary
FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), Gaelle Dusepulchre, permanent representative to the EU
Forest Initiatives and Communities (Ukraine)
Forum Ökologie & Papier – Evelyn Schönheit
Four Paws International, Gerald Dick
Free Press Unlimited (FPU), Director Policy & Programs, Leon Willems
Friends of the Earth Europe, Director , Jagoda Munić
Friends of the Earth Netherlands – Milieudefensie – Danielle van Oijen
Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) – Michael J. Oghia
Global Justice Ecology Project
GMWatch – Claire Robinson
Government Accountability Project, Tom Devine, Legal Director
Greenpeace EU Unit, Jorgo Riss, Executive Director
Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) – Dave Elseroad, Head of Advocacy and Geneva Office
Human Rights Without Frontiers, Willy Fautre
IFEX – Matt Redding – Global Campaigns Strategist
IGM – Institute of Maltese Journalists, Sylvana Debono, president
Index on Censorship – Jessica Ní Mhainín
Institute for Sustainable Development Foundation – Wojciech Szymalski, president (CEO)
International Media Support, Gulnara Akhundova – Head of Global Response Department
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
International Press Institute (IPI) – Scott Griffen – Deputy Director
Iraqi Journalists Right Defence Association
Journalismfund.eu – Ides Debruyne
Justice and Environment, Csaba Kiss
Justice Pesticides, Arnaud Apoteker, General Delegate
Maison des Lanceurs d’Alerte (France), Jean-Philippe Foegle
Media Defence – Padraig Hughes, Legal Director
Mighty Earth – Glenn Hurowitz, CEO
Netherlands Helsinki Committee – Pepijn Gerrits
Nuclear Consulting Group (NCG) – Dr Paul Dorfman
OBC Transeuropa – Paola Rosà
OGM dangers, Hervé Le Meur
Oživení (Czech Republic), Marek Zelenka
Pištaljka (Serbia) – Vladimir Radomirović
Polish Institute for Human Rights and Business – Beata Faracik
Polish Ecological Club Mazovian Branch – Urszula Stefanowicz
Protect- Andrew Pepper-Parsons, Head of Policy
RECLAIM – Esther Martínez, Director
Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue) – Mathias Rittgerott
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Christophe Deloire, Secretary General
Sherpa, Franceline Lepany
Sciences Citoyennes – Kevin Jean
Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) ( Switzerland)
SOLIDAR and SOLIDAR Foundation -Mikael Leyi, Secretary General (European networks, based in Belgium)
Speakout Speakup Ltd (United Kingdom) Wendy Addison
Stefan Batory Foundation (Poland) – Marcin Waszak
Strefa Zieleni Foundation (Poland) – Ewa Sufin-Jacquemart
SumOfUs – Fatah Sadaoui
Swedish Union of Journalists – Ulrika Hyllert
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation – Matthew Caruana Galizia
The Good Lobby Italia – Priscilla Robledo e Federico Anghelé
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)
The New Federalist
The Signals Network – Delphine Halgand-Mishra
Transnational Institute – Fiona Dove
Transparency International – Bulgaria – Kalin Slavov, Executive Director
Transparency International EU – Nick Aiossa, Deputy Director
Transparency International Ireland – John Devitt, Chief Executive
Transparency International Italy – Giorgio Fraschini
Umweltinstitut München – Fabian Holzheid, Political Director
Whistleblower Netzwerk (WBN) (Germany) – Annegret Falter, Chair
Whistleblowing International Network – Anna Myers, Executive Director.
Women Engage for a Common Future – WECF International – Sascha Gabizon
Young European Federalists (JEF Europe) – Leonie Martin, President
Associated Whistleblowing Press /Fíltrala (Belgium/Spain) Stéphane M. Grueso, Coordinator
Since the publication of the op-ed in media outlets, other organisations have expressed their solidarity and support :
NGO Shipbreaking Platform, Ingvild Jenssen, Executive Director and Founder
OCCRP, Camille Eiss, Chief of Global Partnerships and Policy
Ossigeno per l’Informazione, Maria Laura Franciosi