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Deal on stronger press freedom and free speech protection

 

The EU has taken an important step towards the protection of journalists and human rights defenders against unfounded claims or abusive court proceedings. The Spanish presidency of the Council and the European Parliament reached a political deal on a directive which would protect these individuals from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).

The use of these lawsuits to silence people who speak out on issues of public interest is a growing phenomenon. The directive will put in place procedural safeguards against such claims in civil matters with cross-border implications.

Our democracies are in danger when the rich and powerful can silence critics in court just because they speak out on matters of public interest. With this new law the EU is defending journalists and human rights defenders against unfounded and abusive court cases.

Félix Bolaños, Spanish minister for justice

Individuals targeted by SLAPP cases will benefit from a number of procedural safeguards and protections. They can ask the court to:

  • dismiss a claim at an early stage. If a claim is considered to be manifestly unfounded, a judge may decide to dismiss the claim at the earliest possible stage of the proceedings. The court should accelerate requests like this from the defendants
  • demand a financial security from the person or company who brought the claim. A court can decide to require that the claimant, i.e. the person or company who started a SLAPP case, provides a security for the costs of the proceedings
  • seek other types of remedies. A court can decide for instance that the claimant must bear the costs of the proceedings, including the costs of legal representation of the SLAPP victim. A judge may also decide that the party that started the SLAPP case could be subject to a penalty or other equally effective measures

Cross-border SLAPP cases

The Council and the European Parliament agreed on how to define the cross-border nature of a SLAPP case. A matter will be considered to have cross-border implications unless both parties are domiciled in the same member state as the court seised and all other elements relevant to the situation are located in that member state.  

Third-country judgments

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 this third-country judgment if it would be considered manifestly unfounded or abusive in the member state in question.

Measures in support of SLAPP victims

To further support SLAPP victims, member states will have to provide, in one single place, information on the procedural safeguards and remedies.

To better grasp the extent of the phenomenon, member states will also gather specific available data on SLAPP cases from the courts.

Next steps

Today’s agreement will need to be endorsed by member states’ representatives within the Council (Coreper). If approved, the text will then need to be formally adopted by both the Council and the European Parliament.

Background

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, evaluations by the European Commission which examine rule of law developments in EU member states, and Council of Europe analyses.

Copyright European Union