Additional measures proposed by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) would strengthen a European Commission proposal aimed at countering abusive lawsuits against those who contribute to public debate on topical issues, including journalists and rights defenders. These measures include the introduction of preliminary rulings, time limits, or exclusion of the possibility for a person other than the plaintiff to fund legal action.
Open debate is the foundation of a participatory society, without which democracy cannot function. In the opinion "Initiative against abusive litigation targeting journalists and rights defenders", the EESC supports the Commission’s proposal to protect people from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). These include journalists and rights defenders who are important contributors to debate on topical issues.
The EESC approved the opinion at its plenary in October and proposed to expand the list of measures to help curtail SLAPPs. Opinion rapporteur Tomasz Andrzej Wróblewski said:
If we do not strengthen the system, freedom of speech will be threatened.
SLAPPs are used by some powerful individuals, lobby groups, corporations and state organs to silence journalists and others who contribute to public debate, like social activists, human rights defenders, non-governmental organisations, whistleblowers in the broad sense, engaged citizens, or trade unions. Such lawsuits take advantage of gaps in judicial systems to put forward groundless criminal or civil lawsuits that prevent, restrict or penalise the targeted individuals or groups.
Gaps in the system
Among the EESC proposals are the introduction of a preliminary ruling that would terminate proceedings found to be non-compliant and the consolidation of proceedings in a specific jurisdiction at the request of the defendant.
Other proposed measures could be considered including setting a time limit or a means for or fast tracking the procedure. Another suggestion is to exclude the possibility for a person other than the plaintiff to fund SLAPPs.
Protecting freedom of expression
Reviewing national legislation would also help identify mechanisms that could serve to counter SLAPPs. A unified approach should be taken in both cross-border and national cases, and a review of national laws should be undertaken with a view to decriminalising defamation in the remaining Member States where it is still criminalised.
The EESC also suggests shortening the proposed time until the evaluation of the proposed SLAPP Directive from five years to two years.
Finally, education and training are crucial. Legal professionals and participants in the public debate need to be trained to be able to react against SLAPPs and to better know how to defend freedom of expression.
Co-rapporteur Christian Moos said:
It is an urgent, pressing political issue. We need action to defend journalists and people who speak out against abuse of power, against corruption.