Flags flutter outside of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on June 12, 2023.
Flags flutter outside of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on June 12, 2023. The EU is running out of time to pass a law to protect journalists from legal harassment ahead of EU elections in 2024. (Reuters/Yves Herman)

EU under pressure to defend journalists against abusive lawsuits

Brussels, October 11, 2023—As the European Union negotiates a landmark law to prevent the powerful and wealthy using malicious litigation to silence the media, the Committee to Protect Journalists on Wednesday called on the bloc to ensure that proposed legislation is robust and ambitious enough to protect the press.

On Monday, the European Parliament and EU member states resumed negotiations on a 2022 draft directive to address one of the biggest threats to independent journalists in Europe: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). These civil or criminal suits are typically brought by individuals, institutions, or corporations to burden journalists and others with the distraction and cost of a legal defense—even if the plaintiffs do not expect to win the case.

Wealthy people and businesses have stepped up the use of SLAPPs, often claiming libel or privacy grounds, to silence those seeking to expose corruption and wrongdoing. Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was facing 43 SLAPPs at the time of her murder in 2017.

Time is running out for the EU to reach an agreement. Negotiations could wrap up in late November, as the EU prepares for elections in June, which will bring in a parliament and European Commission with a new mandate.

“It is make or break time for the EU on SLAPPs. With elections around the corner, the European Parliament and member states must ensure that the anti-SLAPP directive provides meaningful protection to journalists facing legal harassment,” said Tom Gibson, CPJ’s EU representative. “Censorship by the rich and powerful of journalists’ critical voices must stop and member states must do everything in their power to reach a strong agreement with the European Parliament that helps safeguard press freedom.”

The original law, put forward by the European Commission, was intended to help journalists and others fight back against abusive proceedings in civil cases with “cross-border implications,” including imposing legal costs on the plaintiffs and allowing victims to claim compensation for damages.

CPJ is concerned that a text adopted by member states in June indicated an intention to water down key parts of the draft law, such as early dismissal by a judge of an abusive case.

CPJ now calls on EU member states to broadly define “public interest” in “cross-border” cases to ensure broad application of the directive. The law would currently only apply to cross-border civil cases—about 10% of all lawsuits—as the European Commission was limited in its power to legislate on the issue. Unlike EU regulations, which are directly applicable in every member state, EU directives set goals for each country to implement but do not mandate how to achieve them.

For more about the EU and press freedom, including SLAPPS, read our April report, Fragile Progress: The struggle for press freedom in the European Union.