Unfair trials put pressure on journalists and media outlets in Central and Eastern Europe

Legal - December 21, 2022

A proposal for a European Directive adopted this year to protect journalists and civic activists from unfair trials has been launched for the first time in Brussels. 

The initiative comes against the backdrop of long-standing discussions about the need for legislative measures to protect freedom of expression, but also the problems faced by the media in recent years. With the current proposal for a Directive, which still has to go through the European Parliament, the Commission is “tackling” the issue of so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – SLAPP.

Journalists are intimidated in their work because of court cases

The issue of journalists and NGO representatives being intimidated in their work by lawsuits was mentioned in the 2020 and 2021 Brussels reports on the rule of law.

In 2021 alone, media organisations documented more than 400 such lawsuits, targeting almost 800 individuals or media-related entities, in no less than 24 Member States. In 20% of cases, journalists faced legal consequences. The Commission aims to give courts as well as victims of such harassment the tools to fight against unfounded or abusive proceedings, such as the early dismissal of manifestly unfounded legal proceedings.

The plaintiff will have to prove that the open lawsuit is not manifestly unfounded, and the courts will be able to dismiss such proceedings out of hand. If the practice is dismissed as unfair, the plaintiff will have to pay all the costs, including the lawyers’ fees of the parties to the proceedings.

According to some analysts, the forthcoming directive would benefit many journalists and democracy activists who have fled to the EU from countries with authoritarian regimes and who have continued to be harassed in this way.  Beyond the protection of these journalists and civic activists, according to The Guardian, the Directive would be a direct blow to London, the ‘capital’ of such processes. What is certain is that, thanks to the future Directive, EU Member States will be able to refuse to recognise a judgment originating in a third country against a person domiciled in a Member State if the proceedings would be considered manifestly unfounded or abusive under the law of the Member State.

The victim will also be able to claim damages and costs in a Member State where he or she is domiciled.

“We promised to better protect journalists and human rights defenders from those who try to silence them. The new regulation does that. In a democracy, money and power cannot give anyone an advantage over the truth. With these measures, we are helping to protect those who take risks and stand up when the public interest is at stake – when they report, for example, suspicions of money laundering and corruption, environmental and climate issues or other issues that are important to us all.” – Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová.

But before the Directive becomes law, the draft will have to be negotiated and adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. The European Commission’s initiative is welcomed by non-governmental organisations.

“It is encouraging to see the European Commission taking decisive steps to combat bullying aimed at silencing journalists and civil society activists. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation impact on all those who want to make the powerful pay, with environmental activists among those most exposed to these oppressive legal tactics. It is in the interests of all those who care about the health of European and world democracies that these measures become EU law” – Charlie Holt, Greenpeace International.

The prevalence of SLAPP actions is a serious concern in some Member States, as identified in the 2020 and 2021 Rule of Law Reports. In 2021, there were 439 alerts (targeting 778 individuals or media entities) on the Media Freedom Rapid Response Platform in 24 EU Member States, including SLAPP actions. In more than 1 out of 5 such incidents (22.1% or 97 alerts), media actors faced legal consequences.

The media situation has become dire after the pandemic

These measures are a start, but on the whole, there are those who argue that there is more to be done about press freedom and the future of quality journalism. As part of its efforts to protect media independence and pluralism, and as announced by President von der Leyen in her 2021 State of the Union address, the Commission will bring forward the Media Freedom Act. But this is still pending. The world’s press is facing drastic losses, the UN recently warned on International Press Day, with UN officials once again stressing the importance of information as a public good, Euronews reports.

The intergovernmental body also pointed out that the pandemic has led to business closures and job cuts within the industry, and in other cases to political capture. The situation is even more dramatic in countries where journalists cannot provide accurate information to the public. Reporters Without Borders warned in April that the pandemic was being used by some authoritarian regimes as an excuse to bring journalists to their knees. In its annual report on press independence, which looks at press freedom in 180 countries, the non-governmental organisation reveals that in 73 of them, access to public information for the press is completely blocked and in 59 others it is at risk.

The media market is profoundly changed by online platforms Facebook and YouTube

European countries top the list for press freedom, with the Scandinavian countries in the top four. At the bottom of the ranking are Eastern European and Central Asian countries. And all this comes against the backdrop of an already existing crisis in the press. As a DW interview last year with several analysts on the media situation in Central and Eastern Europe showed, journalists and media outlets in this part of the world are under pressure: from strategic oligarch complaints, attacks and the allocation of European money only to media outlets close to governments. For quality journalism, it’s not easy. At the same time, the media market is being profoundly changed by online platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

“Sadly, the stories and voices of many independent journalists continue to be silenced around the world, including in the EU. They face increasing threats and attacks, including assassinations in the most tragic cases. According to the UNESCO observer, 44 journalists have been killed so far in 2021 and many more have been attacked, harassed or illegally imprisoned. Independent journalists protect freedom of expression and guarantee access to information for all citizens. They contribute to the foundations of democracy and open societies. Whether in our country or around the world, impunity for crimes against journalists must end. Things must start at home. The first recommendation to Member States on the safety of journalists is a concrete step in improving the situation of journalists and media workers within our Union. This includes increased protection for journalists during demonstrations, greater online safety or support for journalists. The many initiatives taken for the safety of journalists within the EU will be reflected in EU actions around the world. Throughout 2021, the EU continued to protest when journalists around the world were threatened. Hundreds of journalists received support through EU human rights defenders’ tools and many media workers benefited from training opportunities. More resources are being allocated to support independent media and to develop the professional skills of journalists working in difficult situations. We will stand by journalists and protect them, wherever they are. We will continue to support a free and diverse media environment, to support collaborative and cross-border journalism and to fight press freedom violations. There is no democracy without media freedom and pluralism. An attack on the media is an attack on democracy,” High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell and Vice-President Věra Jourová said in a statement last year on behalf of the European Commission.