The EU needs rules against vexatious legal actions intended to silence critical voices, according to the Parliament’s Civil Liberties and Legal Affairs committees.
In a draft report endorsed on Thursday with 63 votes for, 9 against, and 10 abstentions, MEPs propose measures to counteract the threat that Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) pose to journalists, NGOs and civil society.
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. In the report, they highlight the frequent imbalance of power and resources between claimants and defendants, which 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.
Measures to protect victims and sanction abusers
The draft report adopted by the Committees calls on the Commission to analyse best practices currently applied outside the EU to SLAPPs, and present a package of measures, including legislation. These should, according to MEPs, include:
-an ambitious legal framework in the upcoming Media Freedom Act;
-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 (and according to the laws) of the defendant’s habitual place of residence;
-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;
-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;
-safeguards against combined SLAPPs, i.e. those combining criminal and civil liability charges, and measures to ensure that defamation (which is a criminal offence in most member states, despite calls for its decriminalisation by the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) cannot be used for SLAPPs;
-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; and
-financial aid for legal and psychological help for victims of SLAPPs and organisations assisting them, and adequate training of judges and lawyers.
Co-rapporteur Roberta Metsola (EPP, MT) 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”.
Co-rapporteur Tiemo Wölken (S&D, DE) said “Even before they materialise, SLAPPs undermine the rule of law, the internal market, and the rights of expression, information and association. We call on the Commission to come forward with concrete and feasible legislative proposals, for example on ‘libel tourism’ and ‘forum shopping’. We also propose key non-legislative measures, such as effective financial and legal assistance, as well as psychological support and practical advice, to be provided by a ‘first aid’ one-stop-shop for victims".
The draft report is expected to be tabled for a plenary vote in November.