One hot spring afternoon in Malta, a journalist went home at the end of her day and upon arrival she found a judicial officer waiting with hundreds of sheets of paper at her front door. His family’s two guard dogs were barking uncontrollably through the gate bars, but he was determined. The court orders were clear: journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was to receive all 19 defamation lawsuits filed against her by a wealthy and powerful businessman at the same time. A few months later, she was dead. She had been killed with a remotely activated car bomb.
This tribune was signed by a group of civil society organizations that we consider to be the case of SLAPP with the most atrocious ending we have seen so far in our European environment, aggravated by the fact that the cases have continued after death. de Caruana Galizia against her husband and three children.
A SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, for its acronym in English, and Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation in Spanish) is a form of legal harassment designed to intimidate critical voices into silence. Unscrupulous and expensive law firms market this “bulldog” service to wealthy and powerful clients who can afford to drag out abusive procedures for years just to protect themselves from unwanted public scrutiny.
This scrutiny is a vital element in healthy democratic societies. The European Court of Human Rights and other national and regional courts have consistently and explicitly recognized in their rulings the important role that a free press and, more generally, civil society plays in holding the powerful to account. Their judgments reaffirm the obligation of States to create an environment conducive to freedom of expression. Because without this, democracy weakens and dies.
The holes in our laws that allow the powerful to hammer down their critics are a hole in European democracy. Cases of abuse dot the continent. The second largest newspaper in Poland, Wyborcza Gazeta, has received more than 55 legal threats and lawsuits from various actors, including Poland’s ruling party, since 2015. French businessman Vincent Bolloré and companies affiliated with the Bolloré Group have saturated journalists and NGOs with defamation lawsuits to prevent talk about your business interests in Africa. In Spain, meat producer Coren has threatened a one million euro claim for damages against an environmental activist for criticizing its waste management practices. It has also previously “warned” activists and scientists who were investigating nitrate levels in its local waters.
The people we depend on for information about what is going on around us are being overwhelmed, limited, or completely blocked from continuing their work due to these costly, resource, energy and time consuming legal attacks. The situation is becoming unrecognizable. When it comes to certain people, governments, companies and issues, the ones who decide whether to talk about it or not are not the writers, filmmakers or journalists, not even the courts, since SLAPPs rarely reach an audience, and a lot less to a court ruling. Those who want to have the last word are the oligarchs and their political contacts, through the law firms they pay.
We have also seen a worrying pattern emerge in Europe, where members of the government of a country or companies benefiting from large public contracts, adopt the same tactics as famous people or oligarchs to protect themselves from the press and criticism: lawsuits. The fact is aggravated when the threats are international, which increases the costs for journalists and activists.
Awareness of this problem is increasing. European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová has promised to “examine all possible options” to counter the threat that SLAPPs pose to European democracy. One promising solution lies in the institutions of the European Union, and it could help improve the balance between those who use SLAPPs and the public’s right to be informed about matters of public interest.
The signatory organizations believe that legislation should be adopted at EU level to protect people throughout the European Union from SLAPP, something that should be a priority. As in other parts of the world, there should be EU-wide rules to allow SLAPP claims to be dismissed early in the proceedings, penalize SLAPP litigants for abusing the law and the courts, and provide remedies to allow victims to defend themselves.
Considering the importance for democracy and the fight against corruption of public control agents, such as investigative journalists, activists or whistleblowers, the absence of safeguards is a threat not only to press freedom but also for the smooth running of Europe.
The reality is that for every journalist or activist threatened with violent methods in Europe, a hundred more are discreetly “silenced” by letters sent by law firms, perverting laws designed to protect the reputations of the innocent from attacks by the powerful. SLAPPs are less barbaric than a bullet to the head or a car bomb, but their silencing effect is often just as destructive.
Access Info Europe
Blueprint for Free Speech
Center for Free Expression (CFE) (Canada)
CEE Bankwatch Network
Chceme zdrav ~ krajinu (³We want a healthy country´, Slovakia)
Citizens Network Watchdog Poland
Civil Liberties Union For Europe
Civil Rights Defenders (CRD)
Civil Society Europe
Clean Air Action Group (Hungary)
Committee to Protect Journalists
Corporate Europe Observatory
Earth League International
Environmental Paper Network (EPN)
Eurocadres ± Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff
European Center For Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL)
European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ)
European Environmental Bureau (EEB)
European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)
FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)
Forest Initiatives and Communities (Ukraine)
Forum Ökologie & Papier
Four Paws International
Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)
Global Justice Ecology Project
Government Accountability Project
Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF)
Human Rights Without Frontiers
Index on Censorship
Institute for Sustainable Development Foundation
International Media Support
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
International Press Institute (IPI)
Iraqi Journalists Right Defense Association
Justice and Environment
Maison des Lanceurs d’Alerte (France)
Milieudefensie – Friends of the Earth Netherlands
Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Nuclear Consulting Group (NCG)
Oåivent (Czech Republic)
Polish Institute for Human Rights and Business
Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue)
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) (Switzerland)
SOLIDAR and SOLIDAR Foundation (European networks, based in Belgium) Speakout Speakup Ltd (United Kingdom)
Stefan Batory Foundation (Poland)
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
The Good Lobby Italy
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) The New Federalist
The Signals Network
Transparency International – Bulgaria
Transparency International EU
Transparency International Italy
Whistleblower Netzwerk (WBN) (Germany)
Whistleblowing International Network
Women Engage for a Common Future – WECF International Xnet (Spain)
Young European Federalists (JEF Europe)