Media freedom: EU ministers agree position on anti-SLAPP law

EU member states have reached a common position – general approach – on a draft law which will protect journalists and human rights defenders against manifestly unfounded claims or abusive court proceedings, the Council of the EU said on June 9.

Such so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are an increasing phenomenon to silence people who speak out on issues of public interest, the statement said.

The draft directive will put in place procedural safeguards against such claims in civil matters with cross-border implications.

Those confronted with SLAPP cases will benefit from a number of procedural safeguards and protections.

These include financial security: A court can decide to require that the claimant, that is, the person or company who started a SLAPP case, provides security for the costs of the proceedings.

Another is early dismissal: A judge may decide to dismiss, after appropriate examination, a claim as manifestly unfounded at the earliest possible stage in the proceedings. In case an application for an early dismissal has been launched, it will be for the claimant to demonstrate that the claim is not manifestly unfounded.

A third relates to costs. Because SLAPP cases often aim to financially wear out a journalist, a court can decide that the claimant must bear the costs of the proceedings, including the costs of legal representation of the SLAPP victim.

The fourth concerns penalties: In case of abusive court proceedings a court can decide to impose dissuasive penalties or other appropriate measures on the party who brought the proceedings.

If a person living in the EU is targeted by a SLAPP case in a third-country, EU member states must refuse the recognition and enforcement of the judgment rendered in that third-country case if it would be considered manifestly unfounded or abusive in the member state in question.

SLAPPs are typically initiated by powerful individuals, lobby groups, corporations and state organs. Their purpose is to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition.

Typical targets of SLAPPs are journalists and human rights defenders. Other persons engaged in public participation such as researchers and academics may also be targeted.

The increase of SLAPPs has been documented in a number of Rule of Law Reports, which examine rule of law developments in EU member states, and Council of Europe analyses.

The June 9 agreement on a common position will allow the Council of the EU to start discussions with the European Parliament in order to settle on the final law.

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