It has been a long road that owes a great deal to Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist who fell victim to these practices and was murdered in 2017….
The pernicious effect of SLAPP lawsuits against journalists, watchdogs and activists has been decried for years. Businesses, special interests or authoritarian governments have been using them to attack, intimidate, censor and financially ruin individuals thought to be acting against their interests, often through investigative journalism and activism. The main objective is to suppress information that should be made public, often protecting shadowy dealings, corruption or financial impropriety. It has come as music to the ears of many that the EU has finally decided to act.
"Freedom of expression and free media are crucial to the functioning of our European democracies, and our free and open societies. Now that we have reached a general approach, we move towards a stronger protection for journalists, human rights defenders and others who engage in public debate," said Gunnar Strömmer, Swedish minister for justice. The draft EU directive will finally put in place procedural safeguards against such claims in civil matters with cross-border implications.
What is a SLAPP?
The European Center for Press & Media Freedom defines SLAPP as "a lawsuit filed by powerful subjects (e.g. a corporation, a public official, a high profile business person) against non-government individuals or organisations who expressed a critical position on a substantive issue of some political interest or social significance." The acronym SLAPP stands for strategic litigation against public participation. In short, these lawsuits are weaponised in order to intimidate and censor critics by burdening them extreme legal defence costs, forcing them to abandon their criticism or opposition. The aim is not usually to actually win the case, but to exert such financial and psychological pressure on the target that they succumb to fear and anxiety and eventually abandon their investigations or publications.