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MEPs accuse EU countries of undermining attempts to protect journalists

Protesters hold photos of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia outside the office of the Prime Minister of Malta on Nov. 29, 2019
Protesters hold photos of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia outside the office of the Prime Minister of Malta on Nov. 29, 2019 Copyright AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud
Copyright AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud
By Maria Psara
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European Union member states are trying to water down the directives for SLAPPs and Media Freedom. Now the European Parliament is vowing to take action.

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The European Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) on Tuesday backed a directive to protect journalists and human rights defenders from unfounded lawsuits aimed at silencing them. 

The anti-SLAPP directive, first proposed by the Commission in April 2022, would enable judges to swiftly dismiss manifestly unfounded lawsuits against journalists and human rights defenders. 

It would also establish several procedural safeguards and remedies, such as compensation for damages, and dissuasive penalties for launching abusive lawsuits.

SLAPPs or Strategic lawsuits against public participation are a particular form of harassment used primarily against journalists and human rights defenders to prevent or penalise speaking up on issues of public interest. Their use has been increasing over the past decade across the EU and the world. 

The Commission's proposal has been dubbed as the ‘Daphne Law’ in honour of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The JURI committee approved the directive with 15 votes in favour, one against and one abstention. The file will be put in front of the plenary in mid-July and if endorsed, will form the Parliament's position for negotiations with member states.

These inter-institutional talks, known as trialogues, are expected to be difficult as MEPs are accusing member states, which form the Council of the EU, of trying to water down EU attempts to strengthen protections for journalists and media freedom. 

The Commission has also rebuked member states over the issue. 

"I would like to express my regret concerning the weakening of the remedies against abusive court proceedings, in particular the deletion of the provision on compensation of damage and the weakening of the provision on award of costs," Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice, said earlier this month after member states agreed on their negotiating position.

German MEP Tiemo Wölken (S&D), the rapporteur on the draft directive, however said that MEPS "made it stronger and we also added other provisions such as a creation of an 'one stop shop' which the SLAPPs targets can contact to receive help by dedicated national networks of specialized lawyers, legal practitioners and psychologists."

An 'almost useless' Media Freedom Act

It is not the first time member states are accused of trying to water down a proposal on media freedom. 

Earlier this month, a deal among the 27 member states on the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) made a lot of eyebrows rise, because of a planned exemption to allow for the wiretapping of journalists.

The regulation, first proposed by the Commission in September 2022, included safeguards against political interference in editorial decisions and against surveillance. The EU's executive wanted to put focus on the independence and stable funding of public service media as well as on the transparency of media ownership and the allocation of state advertising.

"We have welcomed in particular as a political symbol the draft regulation for EMFA, as the Commission for the first time has adopted a legislative act dealing with all media, a traditionally sensitive subject dealt with at national level only,"  Renate Schroeder, director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), told Euronews.

Yet, the EPJ and other NGOs, still criticised the proposal as "not ambitious enough".

"In particular we believed that Article 4 on the protection of journalists' sources and protection from surveillance has not met Council of Europe standards. We also advocated for stronger binding rules on media transparency," Schroeder added.

But member states are seeking to add an exemption to Article 4, introduced by France and opposed by Germany only, that would allow them to spy on journalists in the name of national security.

The original proposal sought to ensure that governments could not "detain, sanction, intercept, subject to surveillance or search and seizure" journalists in order to uncover their sources, unless "justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest" while the deployment of spyware was to be restricted only to "serious crimes". 

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The Council is hoping to broaden the number of offenses allowing such surveillance from 10 to 32.

"The text doesn't protect journalists anymore and thereby makes the Act almost useless for journalists' protection at least," Schroeder said. 

"It still proposes useful tools when it comes to independence of public service media, transparency on state advertisement, some minimum rules on media ownership and on editorial independence. But yes, some member-states are afraid of journalism and thereby give hands to illiberal countries such as Hungary who oppose the Act. We hope the European Parliament will be firm, but we are not too optimistic," underlined the director of EFJ.

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