The European SLAPP Contest 2024
Put on a shiny blazer, treat your hair with some brilliantine and join us in unmasking the worst legal offenders in 2023 and their malicious attempts to intimidate journalists and activists. The European SLAPP Contest is back!
Wealthy and powerful politicians and businesspeople remain particularly creative in devising ways to threaten and sue courageous public watchdogs who are dedicated to unearthing crime, corruption and other shady activities that undermine the public interest.
Journalists, activists, academics and others remain resilient in the face of growing pressure. Their work is essential to protect the tenets of democracy. Yet, the mental and financial toll they bear sends a chilling message to anyone who would dare to challenge the abuses of power.
Meanwhile, SLAPP litigants feel increasingly immune to public scrutiny, formulate ill-found and far-fetched accusations, and face little consequences for their blatant abuse of legal procedures.
SLAPP litigants too often stay unbothered, in the shadow of their malicious actions. CASE ramps up mobilisation to recognize this determination and put SLAPP enthusiasts in the spotlight they truly deserve. We curated a list of SLAPP plaintiffs who have filed some of the most egregious cases against public watchdogs. Our noble jury composed of MEPs will choose the winners in five different categories:
- Farcical Threat
This year, we again presented a special (and undoubtedly your favourite!) People’s Choice Award.
The Corporate Bully of The Year
GAZ System (Poland)
Gaz System, a state-owned company overseeing Poland’s gas transmission network, faced scrutiny in August 2022 when Nawojka Ciborska, a 21-year-old environmental activist from the “Bombelki” collective, criticised the company’s plans to construct an LNG terminal. Ciborska argued that fossil gas exacerbates global warming and should not serve as a transition fuel for decarbonization. The article also quoted an anonymous activist who accused Gaz System of prioritizing profits over environmental concerns, labelling them as “criminals leading us to disaster.” Subsequently, Gaz System filed a lawsuit against Ciborska and the publisher, claiming that the statement damaged their reputation.
Lev Ins (Bulgaria)
The fact-checking news website Mediapool faces bankruptcy as a result of a €500K SLAPP lawsuit initiated by the insurance company Lev Ins. The legal action is tied to an article covering a statement made by the Minister of Finance during a government session, even though the transcript of the meeting was publicly accessible. Bulgarian watchdogs raise concerns, noting that the requested sum represents the highest-ever compensation claimed against the media in the country’s history.
The SPAR supermarket chain filed a lawsuit against the Association Against Animal Factories (VGT) in response to protests organized by VGT, which criticized the use of fully slatted floors in pig farming. The supermarket chain contends that the association, by criticizing SPAR, is essentially an economic rival promoting other supermarkets. Hence, they argue that the law against unfair competition applies. In addition, during protests, VGT allegedly ‘defaced’ the Spar logo on banners and leaflets, displaying the word ‘Spar’ amidst red dripping blood.
SLAPP Politician of the Year
Giorgia Meloni (Italy)
Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, gained attention for her legal actions before assuming the role of the prime minister of Italy in October 2022. One notable incident involved a lawsuit for aggravated defamation against the renowned writer Roberto Saviano. Following the tragic death of a six-month-old baby from Guinea who drowned in a Mediterranean Sea shipwreck, Saviano criticized Meloni’s long-standing anti-migrant rhetoric. In October, a court ordered Saviano to pay a €1000 fine. This is not an isolated incident; Meloni has previously filed a defamation lawsuit against the editors of Domani newspaper, and more recently, she sued a singer from Placebo for calling her a ‘racist’ and a ‘fascist’.
Dijana Hrkalović (Serbia)
Dijana Hrkalović, a former senior official of the Serbian Interior Ministry, has filed a lawsuit against the investigative journalism platform KRIK and its editor, Stevan Dojčinović. Hrkalović alleges that KRIK wrongfully implied her ties to criminal groups through a series of articles, and she is seeking €6000 in compensation for damage to her reputation. Over several years, KRIK, along with various other media outlets, has investigated Hrkalović and reported on her alleged connections to criminal groups. Hrkalović resigned from her ministry position and was subsequently arrested and indicted in October 2021 on charges of hindering the prosecution of criminals. Despite Hrkalović’s claims of a lack of effort to contact her, KRIK made several attempts to secure an interview and obtain her comments regarding the unfolding accusations.
Davit Patsatsia (Georgia)
Patsatsia, the Minister of Internally Displaced Persons from Abkhazia, filed a defamation lawsuit against TV company Pirveli for their statements on the use of funds to house displaced persons from Abkhazia. The journalists based their statements on an audit report, seeking to shed light on certain issues of public interest. In their pursuit of balanced reporting, they approached the Ministry directly for answers but nobody responded to their questions. Instead, the Minister applied to the court and demanded the denial of the statements and the compensation of moral damages in the amount of 30,000 GEL (10,540 EUR). On May 5, Tbilisi City Court satisfied Patsatsia’s lawsuit and ordered Pirveli to pay 15,000 GEL for moral damages.
Farcical Threat of the Year
Eylau Capital (Luxembourg)
In March 2023, investigative outlet Reporter.lu reported on receiving three letters threatening legal action following a series of articles revealing a fraudulent scheme in the real estate sector. The letters are formal notices sent by the companies “EYLAU CAPITAL S.à rl”, “WK CAPITAL MARKETS SA” and “QUBIC GROUP SA” and request to take down instantly – threatening legal action – an article by Véronique Poujol. The article unearthed how the real estate company Cenaro Technical Services and partners, who are under investigation for fraud, offered their services to other promoters.
On January 25, 2023, Edwy Plenel, the director of publication at Mediapart, received an official letter from Damien Rebourg, the director of communication at Total Energies. The letter contained a stern threat of potential legal consequences should “defamatory accusations” be levied against the company on January 28, 2023. This specific date coincided with Mediapart’s dedicated event addressing Total Energies and its corporate practices.
Stephen Rae (Ireland)
Stephen Rae, a former Independent News and Media group editor-in-chief, is known for representing the side of those who sue, rather than those who are sued. Following claims made during a committee hearing that he engages in SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), Rae sent a legal letter to the Oireachtas. In this letter, he demanded immediate action, including the amendment of the Oireachtas record, in response to what he termed an ‘especially vile defamation.’ Furthermore, he insisted on an apology and compensation from the Council of Europe for publishing an allegedly defamatory reference to him, connected to legal action he initiated in 2019. Additionally, Rae has initiated a lawsuit against Mark Tighe and the Sunday Times. The basis for this legal action is a story that relies on claims by former INM chief executive Robert Pitt, alleging that Leslie Buckley, Denis O’Brien’s representative at INM, made specific remarks about Rae’s behavior.
International Bully of the Year
In 2018, Canadian property firm SAKTO and its directors, the daughter of Sarawak’s governor Jamilah Taib and her husband Sean Murray, instigated civil and criminal proceedings against Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF), a human rights and environmental NGO and its executive director, Lukas Straumann. BMF BMF published a number of reports, and a book about the alleged grand corruption under the Taib regime in Sarawak, Malaysia, and the alleged laundering of illicit assets by the Taib family in Canada. Among the charges brought forth by Taib and Murray were infringement of personality rights, defamation, coercion, fraud, and criminal mismanagement. The case has taken five years to make it to the courtroom and has cost BMF several hundred thousand Swiss Francs in the process.
Lars King (North Macedonia)
Swedish businessman Lars King together with its companies Korona Internacional and Fortuna Internacional filed five lawsuits against Investigative Reporting Lab IRLM for a documentary about a leak of data from Credit Suisse. Though King is suing the platform for defamation and moral damage, he abstained from suing the Swedish Public Broadcaster that concurrently published the reporting. These legal proceedings represent cross-border SLAPPs. This is not the only case waged against IRLM for their investigations. In October 2023, the city court in Skopje ruled in favour of the country’s oligarch who sued the lab for defamation, and in an alarming verdict, recommended shutting down its operations.
Bornito de Sousa (Portugal/Germany/UK)
Bornito de Sousa, a former minister and former vice-president of Angola, is a real champ in abusive litigation. De Sousa has filed at least three SLAPPs following criticism expressed over the lavish wedding of his daughter and her exorbitantly costly wedding dress (over $200k for bride’s and bridesmaids’ clothing). De Sousa sued Paulo de Morais, a Portuguese anti-corruption activist over his comments on social media and during a TV broadcast, as well as renewed journalist Oliver Bullough and his publisher over the book “Money Land” that includes a chapter on a TV show episode depicting a wedding dress hunting. Bullough stands trial in a Portuguese court (a country he had never been to), to answer for the Portuguese translation of his book.
SLAPP Country of the Year
At least 945 lawsuits against the media and journalists are currently active in Croatia with over 5,4 mln EUR claimed in damages, according to data collected by the Croatian Journalists’ Association. Thus far, the government has given mere declarative assurances rather than effecting tangible measures to address the issue of abusive litigation. Defamation remains a criminal offence and is regularly invoked by politicians and businesspeople to threaten critical voices.
2023 CASE research shows that Malta is the country with the highest number of SLAPPs per capita in the European Union with 44 new lawsuits recorded in 2022 alone. Troubling statistics combined with the long overdue quest for full justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia should prompt Malta to demonstrate a special commitment to enacting comprehensive legislation to protect public watchdogs from abusive lawsuits and set an example for other countries. Meanwhile, the government remains reluctant to implement recommendations on how to enhance the safety of journalists and restore the rule of law envisaged in the Public Inquiry report. Daphne Caruana Galizia remains the most targeted individual by SLAPPs. The work on the EU-wide Directive was induced to honour the journalist’s name. Unless it includes key meaningful it shall not be dubbed Daphne’s Law.
Poland is among the EU countries with the largest number of SLAPPs and was crowned the “SLAPP Country of 2022” by CASE. Poland’s second-largest daily Gazeta Wyborcza is facing around 100 lawsuits. Defamation remains a criminal offence. The outgoing PIS government gradually incorporated SLAPPs into its arsenal of tactics to weaken public watchdogs. The overwhelming majority of legal actions have been initiated by politicians affiliated with the ruling alliance, including government ministers, state-owned companies, and even the public broadcaster.