Where are the limits to freedom of expression: Second workshop on SLAPP's held for lawyers and activists
The discussion on May 12 at the SLAPP workshop organized by GONG at HUB 385, both in person and online, focused on strategic lawsuits against public participation, how to deal with them and the boundaries of freedom of expression. The workshop was attended by lawyers, including judges and attorneys, as well as journalists and activists who have been victims of such lawsuits.
The term SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) was coined in the United States in the 1980s to describe frivolous or baseless lawsuits filed against individuals advocating for their political rights or freedom of expression on matters of public interest. The purpose of SLAPPs is not to seek justice but rather to intimidate, silence, and financially and physically drain the resources of those targeted.
In the Croatian legal system, as well as in other European Union countries, this type of litigation is not yet defined, and there are no provisions or mechanisms specifically protecting SLAPP victims in these proceedings. At the EU level, there is an ongoing debate on the proposal for a Directive on SLAPPs, which would apply to cases with cross-border elements. Since April 2022, a specific Recommendation has been in effect, outlining mechanisms for addressing this type of litigation.
According to data from the Croatian Journalists' Association in May 2023, there are approximately 940 active lawsuits against media outlets and journalists in Croatia, making it one of the worst countries in Europe in terms of such lawsuits. Sanja Pavić, legal expert from GONG, highlighted this fact during the introduction and presented GONG's analysis, which included three different SLAPP cases in Croatia, emphasizing that not only journalists but also ordinary people fighting for the welfare of their communities are subjected to such lawsuits.
Vanja Jurić, media law specialist and member of the European Commission's expert group on SLAPPs, guided the participants through examples of the most well-known SLAPP cases in Europe and the practice of the European Court of Human Rights. They emphasized the need for more detailed regulation of these proceedings, both at the European level and within Croatia. One example mentioned was the case where the Croatian Tourist Board sued blogger Paul Bradbury for criticizing their work and paraphrasing their official slogan as "Croatia full of uhljebs." After nearly four years, the Croatian Tourist Board withdrew its lawsuit. Another case discussed involved Hrvoje Zovko, the president of the Croatian Journalists' Association and former editor-in-chief of the Croatian Radiotelevision, who was sued by CRT for pointing out issues and scandals within the organization, illustrating the impact of such lawsuits on both professional and private levels.
One of the key aspects in these cases, which scrutinize freedom of expression, is determining when a statement is an expression of opinion or a factual claim. Additionally, the permissible limits of criticism are much wider when it comes to politicians and public figures, although the practice of Croatian courts in such matters is not yet consistent. Therefore, it is necessary to rely on relevant decisions of the Constitutional Court and the practice of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
The need for education of judicial officials was particularly emphasized by the participating judges. They pointed out the limited number of judges able to attend such education programs and stressed that this type of education, which they consider highly necessary, should be accessible to a larger number of judges. They also highlighted that the problems within the judiciary are not solely the judiciary's concern but also the responsibility of the legislative and executive branches, which need to provide suitable conditions for judges to perform their work effectively.