Activists, academics, whistleblowers, and journalists involved in protecting the public interest have been recently facing a growing obstacle presented by the Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). This type of legal action, typically in the form of defamation lawsuit, is often used against media outlets or civil society actors involved in commenting on issues of major public interest. SLAPPs’ aim is, thus, to silence, harass, and intimidate critics by forcing them to spend money and resources to defend themselves against these lawsuits.
Recent monitoring by both the European Commission and the Council of Europe’s Platform of Europe’s Platform have confirmed that SLAPPs are on the rise throughout the EU, threatening the vital role of democracy watchdogs which many of their targets play. Protecting journalists and civil society actors from baseless lawsuits SLAPPs has been a key component of the European Commission’s Democracy Action Plan. Now, the European Parliament decided to act as well and draft its own report with the intention to contribute to the discussion on the issue.
GLOBSEC’s Alliance for Healthy Infosphere provided its perspective on the matter in order to help the legislators to come up with effective tools to counter the negative impacts on public debate and participation posed by SLAPPs. Such tools should comprise both legislative and non-legislative measures, including financial support and available legal support for the targets of SLAPPs. This type of support should be also provided to the bodies that specialize in supporting targets, while relevant state apparatus bodies, including police, prosecutors, and judges, need to be trained on the issue of SLAPPs and on how their institutions can be exploited to silence democratic voices. Especially in former Soviet Bloc EU member states where the judiciary still suffers from numerous issues including corruption, state institutions can be witting or unwitting facilitators of SLAPPs.
With regards to specific legislative measures, civil procedural safeguards against SLAPPs, such as early dismissal of a lawsuit and; legal aid to targets of SLAPPs; could prove as key in countering SLAPPs. Besides these legislative tools, information about legal professionals or other bodies that could help should also be available to targets of SLAPPs. In order to make this legal support as effective as possible, training of legal professionals and sharing good practices among EU countries and legal professionals would be a step in a right direction.
Last but not least, raising awareness about this issue should be a crucial component of any effective countermeasure system against SLAPPs. For instance, medialisation of the cases and fostering of public debate in a transparent manner could prove helpful in making the public and stakeholders more aware about the extent and gravity of the issue.
Author: Nikoleta Nemeckayova