In an interview with DW, Alinda Vermeer, acting CEO of the human rights organization Media Defence, talks about the risks and dangers that the so-called SLAPP suits pose to media freedom.
DW: What exactly are SLAPP suits?
Alinda Vermeer: SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. SLAPPs are lawsuits brought with the intention of silencing or intimidating acts of public participation such as reporting in the public interest, advocacy and activism - not with the intention of winning or obtaining justice. SLAPPs are a threat not only to our right to freedom of expression, but also to our democracies.
SLAPPs are used to drain the resources of these defendants by dragging out legal proceedings over the course of many years. Claimants seek exorbitant damages that could bankrupt the defendant, and with the cost of merely engaging with the case, this frequently leads to withdrawal of articles or choosing not to report on companies that have a reputation of being litigious.
Are they simply getting more attention or are they increasingly being used?
SLAPPs have seen a significant increase around the world. It is however very hard to quantify how much of an increase we have seen over the last few years - many SLAPPs are settled out of court as defendants are simply unable to dedicate the necessary time and resources to fight them. Self-censorship further distorts the numbers. Many SLAPPs are threatened when a potential claimant is asked for comment during the pre-publication stage, leading to articles being withdrawn before they are even published.
Do you see a difference between autocratic and democratic countries in terms of the number of SLAPPs being filed?
SLAPPs are a longstanding phenomenon in countries such as the U.S., Canada and Australia. A report recently publishedby the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law demonstrates that they have proliferated around the world, targeting those who speak out in autocratic and democratic countries alike. At Media Defence, we see SLAPPs popping up around the world, including in Italy, Poland, United Kingdom, India, Thailand and the United States.
One of the problems with SLAPPs is that claimants often bring cases in the most favorable jurisdiction rather than in the country where the dispute arose or the defendant is based. Some countries provide a particularly fertile ground for SLAPPs, for instance countries where litigation is very expensive, stringent defamation laws provide strong protection of reputation, and there are no safeguards such as anti-SLAPP laws.
What are the potential consequences of SLAPPs for media broadcasters and journalists?
The impact of SLAPPs extends beyond the suits themselves with a strong chilling effect that goes out to the media with every SLAPP suit that is being filed. The cost of defending a SLAPP suit is so high that many outlets simply cannot afford to see them through to the end. Instead they take down or alter content when threatened with litigation or choose not to write about companies or politicians that have a reputation for being litigious.
The U.S., Canada and Australia have implemented an Anti-SLAPP suit legal framework: Are you aware of current efforts to create a similar framework in the European Union?
Momentum for tackling SLAPPs in Europe has grown since the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017. At the time of her murder, she was facing more than 40 active libel suits in relation to her journalism – most of them brought by Maltese politicians and businessmen, filed in jurisdictions outside of Malta, such as the United Kingdom and the United States.
Daphne Caruana Galizia faced more than 40 libel suits in relation to her work as a journalist in Malta
There are now strong calls for an EU-wide legally binding response by a coalition of more than 100 NGOs, including Media Defence, and 32 MEPs. A report recently published by Greenpeace highlights that this response could take the form of an anti-SLAPPs directive that harmonizes safeguards against SLAPPs and includes an “early dismissal” mechanism for cases that fall within the definition of SLAPP suits, fines for bringing meritless suits, and compensation and support for victims.
Let's say a SLAPP suit has been filed against me and I would like to seek legal support from Media Defence - how does this work?
We support journalists and news outlets whenever they are confronted with legal action, including SLAPPs, as a result of their reporting. If you’re faced with a SLAPP suit, we can help you find a lawyer in the relevant jurisdiction, help cover legal fees and our in-house lawyers can provide pro bono support to your lawyer. Accessing this support is straightforward: simply submit an application through our website.
We also help push back against SLAPPs more broadly, for instance by connecting journalists and media outlets to lawyers in our extensive global network who can provide pre-publication advice pro bono or submitting amicus briefs to inform courts about SLAPPs and the implications they have for public participation.
Media Defence was founded a little more than a decade ago. What have been the highlights of your work?
Since 2008 we have provided legal help to more than 600 journalists and media outlets around the world. The highlight of our work has been to see the practical impact of our work on the lives of the journalists and media outlets we support. Our support helped avoid 285.6 years of detention and 500 million U.S. dollars in damages. When we recently asked journalists we have supported what impact our support has had, 100 percent continued to report while 73 percent of the cases we supported, had a successful or partially successful outcome.