New SLAPP legislation for EU countries in the pipeline; Malta agrees with bloc-wide binding framework

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 June, 2021 at 9:36 am by Andre Camilleri

Webinar discusses freedom of expression, implementation of EU Charter

SLAPP legislation which is binding to European Union member states is in the pipeline for the near future, Roberta Metsola has told a webinar co-organised by The Malta Independent.

A webinar discussing ‘Strengthening the Application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: Freedom of Expression and Information,’ took place on Monday, with special attention given to Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

The event was organised by the European Commission Representation in Malta in collaboration with The Malta Independent.

Speakers included Věra Jourová, Vice President of European Commission for Values and Transparency, Edward Zammit Lewis, Malta’s Minister for Justice, Roberta Metsola, First Vice President at the European Parliament, and Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

During the webinar, Metsola – who is also one of the rapporteurs on SLAPP legislation in the EU Parliament – said that binding regulations when it comes to SLAPP suits, which are suits used to silence journalists or activists by using cross-border jurisdictions or existing overly prohibitive court procedures, are in the pipeline for the European Union as a whole.

It was a matter which Zammit Lewis agreed with, saying that a binding framework which ensures that foreign jurisdictions recognise case judgements from other countries is integral to fighting SLAPP suits at an EU-wide level.

Metsola said that models in Canada, Australia, and the United States are being looked at for adaptation to the EU, while further soft measures – such as added training for judges and funds for journalists and activists targeted by SLAPP suits – are also likely to be presented as part of the solution.

“The right to speak, publish, and disagree is one of the most fundamental rights – and the latter is one where governments across the EU have breached to go after journalists who criticise them”, Metsola said in her initial address.

Metsola says that there is a “disconnect” between what citizens expect from EU and the tools that the EU has to meet said expectations.

The Article 7 procedure, she said, has proven to be less effective than previously thought.

“Soft measures like scoreboards and annual rule of law reports can be useful, but when they fail to instigate the necessary results it may be time to look at our legislative armoury to react”, she said.

She added that the EU’s democracy protection toolbox has some missing elements.

“Looking at the future of the EU does not mean being self-centred: we need a strong EU to speak on the global stage and defend our values.  As we saw in Belarus, for instance, we are facing threats that can only be met by Europe speaking in one voice”, she said.

Zammit meanwhile used his short address to speak about the importance of the Charter, saying that it should have legal value when it comes to bilateral treaties, and about the need for awareness so that European citizens actually know their rights as per the Charter.

He said that there is the need to enhance freedom of expression and freedom to inform.

At a national level, Zammit Lewis said, the government has taken various initiatives through the new Media & Defamation Act such as capping the amounts, that libel suits cannot be made on the same statements in different media avenues, the removal of the right to issue precautionary warrants in such cases and other initiatives to limit multiple law suits in Malta.

With regards to foreign judgements, he says that he has been stressing that there has to be an EU-wide initiative to eliminate these SLAPP suits.

National judges, he said, should act like EU-judges, noting that judges need more training to apply EU law, including the Charter in our legal system.

Asked later about the government’s reforms to the Whistleblower Act, Zammit Lewis said that the government is conscious about the directive to take the current Whistleblower Act to the next level, saying that the government is currently undertaking an exercise to see what needs to be changed in order to be compliant with the spirit of the EU’s directive.

European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova meanwhile used her address to explain that the EU Charter is not simply an instrument in EU law: it enshrines fundamental rights which any European should enjoy, and it has led to legislative progress and initiatives in a multitude of fields.

The most recent of those initiatives is a work in progress relating to SLAPP law suits – suits used against the media or individuals which are prohibitively difficult to defend against, because for instance they would be in courts in different countries.

“The inspiration for this in Malta was the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was facing several SLAPP suits which was shocking and which requires a solution at a European level”, she said.

Unfortunately, however, even though the structures are solid and progress is clear, charter rights are far from being a reality for all, Jourova said.

She said that more training and education is needed, and that the charter requires training, and needs to be in school curricula to be part of our daily life.

“In 10 years, I would like to see this and see the Charter be used for the improvement of people’s lives”, she added.

Michael O’Flaherty meanwhile said that besides SLAPP suits, there are three other prevalent issues which need to be addressed: these being physical attacks on journalists, politically-motivated monopolistic tendencies, and the political takeover of the media in many countries.

“The strategy to give new focus to the charter has the potential to be a game changer”, O’Flaherty said.

He said that an architecture at a national level is needed for the Charter to truly thrive.

“It can only come to life and be a force for change in our societies if we have strong independent courts, free thriving media, protected and respected civil society, and effective national human rights institutions”, O’Flaherty said.

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