Call for Protection for Media and NGOs from Abusive Lawsuits

Call for Protection for Media and NGOs from Abusive Lawsuits

The EU needs rules against vexatious legal actions intended to silence critical voices, according to the EU Parliament’s Civil Liberties and Legal Affairs committees. A draft report endorsed by MEPs is proposing measures to counteract the threat that Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) pose to journalists, NGOs and civil society.

A statement from the EU Parliament said MEPs regret that no member state has yet enacted targeted legislation against SLAPPs, and they worry about the effect of these lawsuits on EU values and the internal market.

The report highlights the frequent imbalance of power and resources between claimants and defendants, which it says undermines the right to a fair trial. MEPs are particularly concerned about SLAPPs being funded from state budgets, and their use in combination with other state measures against independent media outlets, journalism and civil society.

The draft report calls on the EU Commission to analyse best practices currently applied outside the EU to SLAPPs, and present a package of measures, including legislation.

Measures proposed include an ambitious legal framework in the upcoming Media Freedom Act and the prevention of ‘libel tourism’ or ‘forum shopping’ through uniform and predictable defamation rules, and by establishing that cases should be decided by the courts of the defendant’s habitual place of residence.

The report also calls for rules on early dismissal by the courts so that SLAPPs can be stopped quickly based on objective criteria, such as the number and nature of lawsuits or actions brought by the claimant, the choice of jurisdiction and law, or the existence of a clear and burdensome imbalance of power.

Other proposals include sanctions for the claimant if they fail to justify why their action is not abusive, rules to ensure the consideration of abusive motives even if early dismissal is not granted, and the payment of costs and damages suffered by the victim.

An EU directive establishing minimum standards, which should protect victims while preventing and sanctioning the misuse of anti-SLAPP measures, e.g. by authoritarian governments weaponising them to protect their government-organised NGOs, is also being proposed.

Financial aid for legal and psychological help for victims of SLAPPs and organisations assisting them, and adequate training of judges and lawyers are further proposals laid out in the report.

Committee member Roberta Metsola, MEP, said, “The strong support for our report sends a powerful message that Parliament will safeguard the fourth pillar of our democracy. We call for mechanisms to allow for the expeditious dismissal of vexatious lawsuits and to help those affected to claim compensation. We want an EU Fund and information networks to support victims. The key issue is balance: we are targeting those who abuse our legal systems to silence or intimidate, while protecting those caught in the cross-fire, many of whom have nowhere else to turn”.

The draft report is expected to be tabled for a plenary vote in November.

Image by Friends of Europe/via CreativeCommonsCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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