EU law must crack down on frivolous lawsuits against the media

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“Literally before we could bury what was left of my dead mother, we were back in court fighting one of 40 or more lawsuits against her.”

So said Matthew Caruana Galicia, son of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a crusading Maltese journalist who was killed by a car bomb five years ago, at a recent hearing in Strasbourg into frivolous charges against the press.

  • Student writer Julia Nebel from Germany (Photo: ecpmf.org)

“Today the former prime minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, is still suing my late mother. It’s a surreal situation. It shocks me every time I say it,” said Matthew Caruana Galicia.

In public hearings and in court, journalists are fighting back against malicious lawsuits – but the growing wave of abuse deserves EU intervention.

That was the message to European capitals from press freedom advocates at a meeting at the Council of Europe last Thursday (20 October). EUobserver was present because it was the subject of such a dispute.

Major national newspapers, such as the UK-based Guardian and Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, still publish hard-hitting stories despite almost daily lawsuits.

Journalists in Europe are also increasingly being bombarded with legal letters designed to stop stories from being published, said Gillian Phillips, director of editorial legal services at the Guardian.

But if they know their rights, they can expose harassment to public scrutiny, Sarah Clarke of Article 19, a London-based NGO, also said in Strasbourg.

“Their tactic is to try to isolate people. We encourage journalists to publish such letters, even if they say ‘private and confidential’, which has no legal basis,” she said.

“It is important to fight back,” added Waltr Strobl, of the Austrian press association Presseclub Concordia. “Public opinion is very important,” he said.

In another brilliant voice, Julia Nebel, a law student and editor from Leipzig, Germany, spoke about her experience of being sued for an article about a predatory real estate broker.

It ruined Christmas and cost her a lot of time and anxiety, she said, but it also caused a surge in readership of the story in her student newspaper Luhze.

The fact that some journalists were able to retaliate should not distract from the general darkening of the media landscape in Europe, however, the Strasbourg hearing also showed.

It costs around €12,000 to challenge a simple defamation case in Brussels, but in London it’s up to €500,000 in a system that has gotten out of control.

“We know that it is necessary to legislate” to help protect journalists from the oligarchs, said in Strasbourg Beatriz Maja Brown, head of the British Ministry of Justice.

Legal harassment of the media by foreigners could be a “tool of hybrid warfare” and have “national security” implications, she added, as it prevented journalists from uncovering foreign bribery schemes.

In Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza deputy editor Piotr Stasiński said the ruling Law and Justice party and its henchmen had rained down more than 100 lawsuits against the paper since 2015.

He even sued them for an editorial calling Poland a “mafia state”.

The legal papers arrived by crate on certain days. The loss of time, sanity and money, some of which cost tens of thousands of euros, risked making editors “pessimistic” or having a “chilling effect” on coverage, Stasiński said.

And the rot in Poland was penetrating deeper, he warned, because law and justice stuffed the courts with loyalist judges. “Now we are starting to lose cases,” he said.

Daphne’s Law

The European Commission has proposed creating equal guarantees for journalists, as well as other activists, in the 27 EU member states in a bill informally known as the “Daphne Law”.

It would give judges early dismissal powers against ‘manifestly unfounded’ cases that amounted to ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’ [Slapps]”, in a historic victory for activists.

It would also see abusers pay damages to victims, in a bill currently being discussed by member states.

The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, and the European Commissioner for Values, Věra Jourová, came to the hearing in Strasbourg to show their support.

Pia Lindholm, an EU official in Jourová’s cabinet, said the law would uphold people’s rights to hold the media duly accountable and protect other activists, such as environmental activists, as well as artists and the scientists.

“It’s not about denying anyone justice,” Lindholm said. “We have to find the right balance,” she added.

But with some national administrations, such as Poland and Hungary, being less supportive of independent media and civil society, EU-wide measures risk being declawed.

“It will be quite an advocacy struggle over the next year to keep the text as good as it is in the face of pressure from member states,” said Tom Gibson, of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. , in Strasbourg.

good lawyers

The anti-Slapp law will start to come into force in EU countries in 2026 if all goes well, meaning European journalists will be forced to fight back as best they can for some time to come.

The good news is that some NGOs, such as the European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) in Berlin, have the resources to help the media pay for lawyers.

“If people have proper and qualified legal representation, they are likely to win,” said ECPMF legal assistant Tabea Caspary in France.

The ECPMF, together with the Union of Flemish Journalists (VVJ) in Brussels, has paid a “real” lawyer to defend EUobserver in two lawsuits over the past two years – one of which we have already won.

“If anyone needs help, we are happy to support you,” ECPMF’s Caspary added, in an open invitation to applicants.

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