March 5. 2024. 2:56

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SLAPP cases of growing concern, says Croatian democracy watchdog


Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) are a growing problem in Croatia, representatives of Zagreb-based democracy and human rights NGO GONG said during an event at the European Parliament on Tuesday.

The event in Strasbourg was organised by PATFox, a project training lawyers defending journalists and media outlets from lawsuits “designed to shut down legitimate criticism”.

According to GONG and the national association of journalists HND, Croatia is one of the leading countries in Europe in terms of the sheer number of lawsuits filed against media outlets. Although no data is available separating SLAPP cases from legitimate complaints, there are reportedly some 900 trials against journalists before Croatian courts, usually based on loose interpretations of local libel laws.

One of the most frequent transgressors is judges themselves, keen to shut down reporting related to cases involving corruption or government officials. GONG said that judges presiding over these cases often rule in favour of their colleagues when they are plaintiffs and sue journalists seeking damages.

“Croatia is unique in that a large number of SLAPP lawsuits are initiated by judges, and then they rule in each other’s favour, with verdicts which award cash damages disproportionately higher than the alleged libel would require,” Sanja Pavic, a lawyer working for GONG, said in a press release.

Although in recent years, damages sought by plaintiffs in SLAPP cases are usually lower – in the region of €1,500 to €4,000 – they are still frequent. A 2022 poll of members of the national association of journalists HND found at least 951 ongoing lawsuits against media outlets in the country, with plaintiffs seeking a total of just over €10 million in damages.

HND is part of the international CASE coalition to combat SLAPP cases, which fights to raise awareness of this problem – deemed a threat to the basic tenets of democracy – at the EU level. In April 2022, the European Commission unveiled its proposed anti-SLAPP directive which press freedom watchdogs hailed as a step in the right direction.

“In Croatia, judges use SLAPP cases as a form of abuse of the legal system in order to shut down journalists and media outlets,” the head of the national journalists association, Hrvoje Zovko, told EURACTIV.hr, adding that although local law already includes a provision allowing courts to throw out trivial lawsuits and sanction plaintiffs, this is rarely used in practice.

“Of course, one should not generalise – there are many judges who use their rulings to protect freedom of speech in line with democratic principles. However, when judges are plaintiffs, they are much more likely to win their cases against media outlets than any other individuals – and they also get awarded higher damages,” Zovko told EURACTIV.hr.

The Commission proposed an initiative to counter Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), which are legal actions levied against journalists, NGOs and activists, often by influential figures such as businesses or politicians, in April 2022, following years of advocacy by civil society and lawmakers.

The Commission’s proposal took the form of a directive designed to tackle cases with cross-border implications and was accompanied by a recommendation on how the member states could implement similar measures at the national level to tackle domestic cases.

According to data from Media Freedom Rapid Response last year, around one in five violations against journalists and media are legal.

While the Commission’s planned directive has been hailed as a step in the right direction, media stakeholders say member states must roll out their own regulations. The EU directive recommends the adoption of national anti-SLAPP laws, it is, however, non-binding as it falls outside of the EU’s jurisdiction.

As most SLAPPs do not have cross-border implications, something that is specified in the EU proposal, member states would still need to create their own domestic laws.

The push for EU-wide legislation came following the murder of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Her family and international media freedom organisations, called on the Commission to protect journalists and prevent frivolous lawsuits from being used to intimidate and silence.

At the time of her murder in 2017, there were 42 libel suits against her brought by mainly Maltese politicians and their business associates. Following her assassination on 17 October 2017, around 13 were withdrawn, but the rest have been passed on to her grieving family.
“It’s just a form of harassment to eat up your time, eat up your money,” Daphne’s son, Matthew, a journalist, says. “It costs very little to file a libel suit in Malta… there’s almost no risk to the plaintiff. And the defendant has to pay to respond, otherwise, they lose by default.”

(David Spaic-Kovacic | EURACTIV.hr, Alice Taylor | EURACTIV.com)