The European Parliament is strengthening its efforts at increasing the protection of journalists and combat efforts by organisatons, corporations and powerful individuals in silencing them. Through a report drawn up jointly by the Committees on Legal Affairs and Civil Liberties, MEPs are putting pressure on the European Commission to come forward with a legislative act against abusive litigation targeting journalists and civil society, the so-called SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation).
EP Vice-President Roberta Metsola is spearheading these efforts, together with German S&D MEP Tiemo Wölken, said that these efforts are meant to create a “watershed” moment for journalists and media freedom in Europe. She is infact leading efforts to draft up a report aimed at getting a wide-reaching agreement to prevent SLAPP suits across the bloc. This report is expected to be tabled in June, with a target to have a vote in the Plenary by early Autumn.
A growing body of evidence – including from ECPMF, Greenpeace EU, and Index on Censorship – shows a rise in the use of SLAPPs across the continent, and highlights the devastating impact such abusive tactics can have on public watchdogs.
The term SLAPP – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – was coined by Professors George W. Pring and Penelope Canan in their book SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out.
Addressing a press briefing this morning, Metsola said that the right of freedom of journalists to do their job cannot be untangled from the duty to protect democracy. She noted how journalist and media houses are facing threats, being silenced and made the enemy.
She described SLAPPS as abuse, explaining how they require large sums of money to defend. “Journalists end up having only two choices: stop reporting of face a lengthy suit in third countries or another Member State.”
“This is about balance journalists have to seek the truth but must be allowed to do so. We are determined to get this rght, different political groups, but share a common goal. Our Europe must be able to provide cover for journalists who are in the cross-fire, Europe must protect them”, she concluded.
Socialist MEP Wölken said that the Committees are looking at recommending a three-pronged approach. Firstly, a directive to achieve minimum standards across the Union. Secondly, a revision to international law to reduce forum shopping. Thirdly, the introduction of non-legislative measures such as an EU Fund to support victims, logistical support and the creation of a network to allow media houses to support each other.
Moreover, he said that defendants should be protected about similar claims being placed in different Member States.
Such measures have long been called for by media organisation and lobby groups. The Media Freedom Rapid Response has been at the forefront in its calls for an ambitious European Media Freedom Act. In a statement, the MFRR said that in recent years, “we have witnessed the staggering politicisation of the media in a small but growing number of member states where governments have abused regulatory, economic and legislative powers to punish critical media, increase control over public service media and promote government cheerleaders controlled directly or indirectly through party loyalists.”
According to the 2021 World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters without Borders earlier this year, Europe remains a favourable continent for press freedom but violence against journalists has increased, and the mechanisms the European Union established to protect fundamental freedoms have yet to loosen draconian measures being taken in a number of countries particularly in Central and Southern Eastern Europe.
Ability of journalists to work freely will improve democracy, trust in media
The MEPs insisted that journalism was an important pillar of democracy and it was imperative that journalists are allowed to do their work as freely as possible without fearing of retribution. Various international organisations have pointed out in recent months how political leaders or corporations that are subjected to investigations on their work seek to diminish the media’s role.
A recent Eurobarometer survey found that just half (51%) of Maltese respondents in a Eurobarometer survey said they trust the media to provide trustworthy information, compared to the EU average of 63%. Positively, 71% think that the media in Malta does provide a diversity of opinions, on the same level of their European counterparts. Just a quarter of Maltese respondents agreed that the media provide information which is free from political and commercial pressure.
This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.