Council of Europe wants to combat abusive media persecution

On Friday, the Council of Europe called on its 46 member states to better protect journalists against abusive persecution. According to a study by the ZHAW, such lawsuits are rather rare in Switzerland, but have a deterrent effect on investigative journalism.

Journalistenverband Impressum

The Committee of Ministers calls for "comprehensive and effective strategies to combat law enforcement mania", it said in a statement.

These are defined as lawsuits or threats of lawsuits with the aim of harassing or intimidating journalists and which aim to "prevent, obstruct, restrict or punish the free expression of opinion on matters of public interest". Such actions can be brought by large corporations, wealthy individuals or even government bodies against journalists or other critical observers of public life.

In order to facilitate the identification of model claims, the recommendation contains a non-exhaustive list of ten indicators, including "the exploitation of an imbalance of power, the total or partial unfoundedness of the arguments put forward by the claimant, the disproportionality, excessiveness or unreasonableness of the redress sought and the use of delaying tactics".

Applicants shall bear the costs

The Council of Europe, which monitors human rights in Europe, encourages its member states to take measures to process these types of proceedings quickly and avoid delaying tactics. It also wants the plaintiffs in a test case to "bear all legal costs of the proceedings, including all costs incurred by the defendant in representing him before the court".

The recommendation also calls on states to introduce measures to "support targeted individuals and victims and to introduce education, training and awareness programs".

In February, the European Parliament adopted rules to protect journalists and legal defense lawyers from prosecution.

These abusive legal proceedings - known by the acronym Slapp for "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" - found a dramatic example in the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017. She was the target of more than 40 prosecutions at the time of her death in a car bomb attack.

In France, the billionaire Vincent Bolloré and his group, who are familiar with proceedings against journalists and the media, have already been convicted in several cases of "abusive proceedings".

Switzerland has only a few cases

The phenomenon was investigated in Switzerland by the ZHAW on behalf of the Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM). According to the figures published at the beginning of this year, the phenomenon is quite limited in Switzerland compared to other countries. Of the 142 editors-in-chief who responded to an online questionnaire, only eleven stated that they had received a total of 24 abusive complaints in the last three years.

According to the authors, there is a risk that these procedures - or the threat of such measures - could lead to a kind of self-censorship in editorial offices. However, most of the legal experts interviewed are of the opinion that the existing laws are sufficient and that no additional regulations are necessary. (SDA)

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