April 14. 2024. 7:16

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Against SLAPPs in the face of democracy

Independent journalism is an indispensable cornerstone of our democracy; by providing citizens with reliable information and at the same holding those in power accountable, it is absolutely essential for the checks and balances without which democracy does not function properly, writes MEP Alexis Georgoulis.

In order to be able to fulfil this important role in our society, journalism and press publishing has to be free from any political or other influence and must never be afraid of possible legal prosecution.

Unfortunately, so-called ‘SLAPPs’ – strategic lawsuits against public participation – have increasingly become a legal tool of the powerful to target journalists as well as other individuals or organizations of the civil society that work towards bringing important issues to public attention or advocating for policy change.

As the word ‘strategic’ suggests, SLAPPs abuse our justice system and are utilised to intimidate, harass and eventually silence critical voices. Ranging from defamation suits to criminal charges, they can take various legal forms and aim at financially draining the defendants and tying them up in long court processes – and deterring other critics from speaking out.

SLAPPs pose a significant threat to independent journalism and civil society – and hence to our whole democracy. I am therefore relieved that the European Union is currently working on a “directive on protecting persons who engage in public participation from manifestly unfounded or abusive court proceedings”.

Myself, I am actively involved in the ongoing legislative process as rapporteur of the opinion of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT). While the Commission’s initial proposal is overall very good, my function gives me the opportunity to contribute to a further improvement of the directive.

Essentially, SLAPPs are attacks on freedom of speech. That is why I am proposing to extend the directive to include references to several other rights and freedoms inherently linked to the exercise of freedom of expression and information, e.g. the right to freedom of association and assembly as well as to freedom of the arts, culture and science.

By this, we can anchor a comprehensive and rights-based definition of the notion of ‘public participation’ which should be intended as participation in public life and decision-making, but also in the exercise of a watchdog role to promote accountability for activity that is deemed illegal, immoral, illicit, unsafe or fraudulent.

Ultimately, it is our civil society as a whole – comprising non-governmental organizations, community groups and individual citizens – that plays an equally important role in upholding democratic values, exercising their right to free speech and holding those in power accountable. In this respect, the EU’s new anti-SLAPP directive can mean a big step forward, provided that it will be properly transposed into national law and properly enforced.