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March 4, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:00am

SLAPP lawsuits aiming to silence journalists on the rise

By Jessica Ni Mhainin

Journalists in Europe have been physically attacked, threatened, slandered, subjected to criminal investigations and arrested in the last year. One was killed.

These means of silencing journalists are widely known and understood. But another threat has been on the rise: Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation, or SLAPPs.

SLAPPs are lawsuits brought by powerful private parties against journalists and media outlets to silence them and prevent them from continuing or publishing their work.

Although they present a serious threat to freedom of expression, including the right to receive and impart information, they are not widely known or understood.

Last year, Maltese investigative journalist Caroline Muscat wrote in Index on Censorship Magazine about how SLAPPs were used to intimidate her and pose an existential threat to her media outlet, The Shift News.

“Right now, in Malta, journalists have to spend a disproportionate amount of time fighting back rather than doing their jobs,” wrote Muscat. “And the situation is getting worse.”

She is just one of the journalists to have been targeted with these lawsuits.

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In 2019, the Council of Europe’s Platform for the protection of journalists filed an alert on over 1,160 pending lawsuits against journalists and news outlets filed by politicians, public figures and corporations in Croatia.

Because some journalists or news outlets decide not to publish once they receive a legal threat, the full extent of the phenomenon is not understood.

“This is an incredibly serious issue for journalists, where legal action is being used by the rich and powerful just to frighten investigative reporters into stopping their work,” said Rachael Jolley, editor-in-chief of Index on Censorship Magazine.

This is why Index on Censorship has launched a year-long research project, which seeks to investigate the scope and scale of SLAPP suits in the UK, EU, and Norway.

As part of the project, Index will collate case studies and record the number of SLAPP threats and actions that are being issued to journalists and media organisations.

According to research carried out by Greenpeace, 92.8 per cent of SLAPPs in Europe present as defamation lawsuits. But unlike “simple” defamation lawsuits, success or financial gain is never the objective of a SLAPP.

Instead, the aim is to frighten the defendant, drag them through the courts, and punish or discourage them from pursuing their investigations.

The plaintiff will target individual journalists rather than their media organisations, will seek disproportionate remedies, and make futile appeals aimed at driving up costs and bleeding the defendant of time and resources.

SLAPPs put small media organisations and freelance journalists at a particularly steep risk.

Speaking at an event about the rise of SLAPPs, Matthew Caruana Galizia – son of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was assassinated in 2017 – said she was facing up to 50 SLAPP suits at the time of her death.

“It’s the most extreme case that I know of,” said Caruana Galizia, who is himself an investigative journalist, “it made her life absolutely impossible.”

Under Maltese law, the burden of proof in verifying allegedly defamatory statements lies with the defendant. His mother’s death means now “it’s impossible to win these cases,” said Caruana Galizia.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, who sat alongside Caruana Galizia on the panel, said that those who file SLAPP suits are “organised and sophisticated” and that journalists and other stakeholders must be organised and sophisticated too. “It’s so important that we share information,” she said.

Index on Censorship’s research project seeks to do just that.

We are calling on journalists and media organisations around Europe to share information about the legal threats and actions that have targeted them and their work.

If you are a journalist or media lawyer and would be willing to be interviewed for Index on Censorship’s SLAPP research, email or complete our online questionnaire.

Jessica Ní Mhainín is Policy Research and Advocacy Officer at Index on Censorship.

Picture: Pixabay

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