Courts will be able to dismiss vexatious lawsuits and order claimants to pay procedural costs, penalties and compensation under European Union plans to introduce anti-SLAPP legislation.

The proposed directive, unveiled by the European Commission on Wednesday, would significantly bolster legal safeguards for journalists, activists and others who face unfounded or abusive lawsuits.

Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, are a form of legal harassment used by wealthy or powerful actors to block or chill reporting on issues of public interest that involve them. 

A study by a coalition of NGOs campaigning against such suits concluded that Malta had the highest number of such legal cases per capita, with murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia the most frequent target.

Efforts to introduce an EU-wide anti-SLAPP law date back years, with Maltese MEP David Casa having first written to the EU Commission in November 2017 to warn about SLAPP threats being made by Pilatus Bank and call for EU intervention.

Over the ensuing years, MEPs have debated various proposals to that effect, including a key report co-authored by Roberta Metsola, a Maltese MEP who now serves as president of the European Parliament. 

Beyond those efforts, Wednesday’s announcement by the Commission is the first tangible step towards an EU anti-SLAPP directive. The Commission proposal will now be debated within the parliament and put to a vote by MEPs. If passed, it will then be presented to the EU Council, for member state leaders to approve as an EU-wide law. 

The Commission’s proposal would allow courts to dismiss civil cases at an early stage if it deems them to be manifestly unfounded, with the claimant obliged to prove the merit of the case in such cases. 

If a case is deemed to be unfounded, the claimant would be liable to pay all legal costs related to the case, with the courts also able to order penalties to discourage claimants from filing such cases. 

SLAPP suits filed in non-EU countries

Importantly, the Commission proposal also delves into SLAPP suits filed in non-EU countries. In such cases, if a case is deemed to be unfounded by a member state, that country should refuse to recognise that court ruling. 

The Commission has also made a recommendation to member states, advising them to ensure national legal frameworks provide the necessary safeguards against SLAPPs and to ensure the necessary legal training and legal aid is available to those who may be targeted by such suits. 

It is also advising member states to start collecting data on an annual basis about SLAPPs, starting from 2023. 

Malta’s government has been coy about its intention to protect journalists and activists from SLAPPs and in 2018 had turned down a suggestion to introduce anti-SLAPP provisions into a local media law. 

The reason given – that doing so would run counter to EU law – was dismissed by EU Commissioner Vera Jourova

Jourova was one of two EU Commissioners presenting the proposed directive on Wednesday. 

“In a democracy, wealth and power cannot give anyone an advantage over truth.

"With these measures, we are helping to protect those who take risks and speak up when the public interest is at stake – when they report for example on allegations of money laundering and corruption, environmental and climate matters or other issues that are important to us all,” she said. 

Casa, who co-chairs the European Parliament’s media working group, welcomed the Commission’s plans. 

“I am pleased to see that what the Commission is proposing is exactly what we have been campaigning for,” he said. “We are seeing libel tourism being addressed, which currently allows businesses to sue small media houses in jurisdictions with much heftier fines. And the Directive will also foresee dissuasive penalties for abusive practices”.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us