The boundaries of permissible criticism are much wider when it comes to politicians and public figures: Gong held its first workshop on SLAPPs

12. January 2023.

What are SLAPP lawsuits in general, how to deal with them and how far the limits of freedom of expression extend? All of this was discussed yesterday at Gong's workshop led by Vanja Jurić, a lawyer specialised in media law and member of the European Commission's expert group for SLAPP lawsuits, in the premises of HUB 385 in Zagreb.

The participants, mostly attorneys-at-law, stated at the beginning of the workshop that they wanted to learn more about these lawsuits, since in the Croatian legal system, as well as in other European Union member states, this type of procedure is not defined and there are no provisions or mechanisms which could provide victims of SLAPPs with specific protection in these proceedings.

SLAPP lawsuits (strategic lawsuits against public participation) are a growing problem throughout Europe, and Croatia is the leader of the trend with almost a thousand current lawsuits. Such lawsuits are recognized as widely used means of silencing critical voices in the public sphere, and are initiated by powerful actors (eg, government officials and judges through private lawsuits) to intimidate and silence those who speak out in the public interest. Typical defendants are guardians of democracy: journalists, activists, informal associations, academics, trade unions, media organisations and civil society organisations.

Vanja Jurić led the participants through some of the most famous SLAPPs in Europe and the practice of the European Court of Human Rights, with emphasis on the fact that a more detailed regulation of these procedures is needed, as well as through Croatian cases. For instance, the Croatian Tourist Board filed a lawsuit against blogger Paul Bradbury for criticising their work, as well as for paraphrasing the official slogan “Croatia full of life” into "Croatia full of uhljebs (leeches)", and this proceeding entered its fourth year. She also referred to probably the most famous SLAPP in the country, when Croatian Radiotelevision sued its editor-in-chief and president of the Croatian Journalists' Association, Hrvoje Zovko, for pointing out problems and scandals at CRT.

One of the key things that need to be determined when dealing with such cases in which freedom of expression is being questioned is to determine when some information is a value judgement and when it is a factual statement. Also, the limits of permissible criticism are much wider when it comes to politicians and public figures, and the Government and its officials have to endure an even greater degree of criticism than politicians, because their dominant positions dictate restraint when setting measures, as the practice of the European Court of Human Rights points out. The practice of Croatian courts in such cases is still not harmonised, which is why it is necessary to rely on the relevant decisions of the Constitutional Court, in addition to the practice of the ECtHR.

In April last year, the European Commission presented a legislative package aimed at protecting journalists and human rights activists from SLAPPs. This package has two main components: the draft Directive and the Recommendation. The proposed Directive should provide courts and SLAPP victims with adequate tools to combat such claims. The provisions of the Directive will be applied in civil and commercial law cases that have cross-border implications, which is also its shortcoming since it will not cover national cases, which present the majority. The recommendations encourage Member States to ensure that the legal framework provides the necessary safeguards to address the problem of manifestly unfounded or malicious legal proceedings against public participation, as well as to ensure an appropriate connection between the right to the protection of personal data and the right to freedom of expression and information so that the two rights are in harmony.

A new workshop will be held in Spring, and we invite all lawyers who possess a desire to learn more about SLAPP lawsuits to follow our notifications, and reserve a spot.

Gong, alongside 10 countries, is part of the paneuropean consorcium Pioneering AntiSLAPP Training for Freedom of Expression - PATFox, which has the goal of educating legal experts throughout Europe to respond as good as they can when found in lawsuits of this kind.

Co-funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union. The European Union cannot be held responsible for them.