The Malta Independent 5 August 2021, Thursday

EC plans to have anti-SLAPP initiative in place by end of the year – Vera Jourova

Neil Camilleri Sunday, 20 June 2021, 08:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova speaks to The Malta Independent on Sunday about the EU’s efforts to help journalists combat the threat of SLAPP suits, funding for the independent media, and strengthening the legal tools against hate speech.

The EU always said that the media is the fourth pillar of democracy. In recent years we have seen how public trust in the media has declined and revenue is decreasing. What is the Commission going to do about this situation?

I believe that media freedom and pluralism are an essential pillar of democracy. Media independent from political influence allow for an open debate. They also hold governments accountable and monitor democratic processes, especially in crisis times. This is why we also put media freedom and pluralism at the core of our European Democracy Action Plan adopted last December.

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The pandemic has demonstrated the key role of journalists to inform citizens. At the same time, the crisis has also further increased the economic and sometimes political pressure on them. I will always defend independent media and as the Commission, we have stepped up our efforts.

For the first time ever, we have presented a comprehensive European approach for the media, looking both at their economic and democratic roles. We simply cannot ignore the increased political pressure on media, the risks for individual journalists or attempts to use litigation to silence journalists.

We are now working on measures to improve the safety of journalists, tackle abusive litigation against them and increase funding support. We are also exploring how a new “Media Freedom Act” can protect the role of media as key actors in democratic societies.

 

Should national governments fund the independent media? If yes, how? If not, why?

I think the governments in all Member States should pay close attention to the situation of the media and support media pluralism. When they do so, they should respect key principles: transparency, fairness, respect for the independence of the media and media pluralism. We have seen some good examples during the pandemic of governments having fair schemes to compensate, for example, lost revenues. In some case, there was a specific attention paid to local, regional media.

I have also encouraged Member States to support the media sector under their recovery and resilience plans.

 

Should the Commission set up a fund to help journalists and newsrooms?

We already have funding opportunities available and we are stepping up our efforts. We need a diverse set of funding opportunities to address the needs of the sector and support its digital transformation.

In December last year, we put forward a Media and Audiovisual Action Plan. It is our roadmap for the recovery and transformation of the media and audiovisual sectors. It includes the “NEWS” initiative which will bring together all relevant funding opportunities and actions for the news media sector under a common banner.

Currently ongoing projects amount to about €20 million in EU funding. Among these projects, we have a fund to support cross-border investigative journalism, Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU), with a specific scheme for freelancers.

For the first time ever, there is also a specific financial envelope in the EU budget dedicated to media pluralism, journalism and media literacy, which will amount to at least €75 million over seven years.

 

Do you think that social media and blogging is destroying the concept of a traditional newsroom where everyone thinks s/he is a journalist?

I don’t think it is appropriate for me to assess this. The fact is that media are undergoing digital revolution and the so-called traditional media need to find the way to operate in this new reality. This is where we would like to assist the media, if needed.

Social media, blogging – they have created a lot of opportunities for people in dictatorships to present the situation as they see it, bypassing official propaganda channels. In my youth, in the Communist Czechoslovakia, my parents were listening to Radio Free Europe. Today, there can be more channels.

This is also something we see – in a very dramatic way – in Belarus. The recent hijacking of plane by Belarussian authorities to arrest journalist and blogger Raman Pratasevich shows how far a dictatorship can go to silence free, critical voices who are informing people in Belarus, but also us, across the world, about what is really happening on the ground.

But, of course, I see also the negative sides of social media, just to mention disinformation. Digitalisation has also offered opportunities for bad actors, for those who want to manipulate public opinion and spread lies. We are working to make it more difficult and more expensive.

 

What are you views about SLAPP suits?

SLAPP lawsuits target freedom of expression and freedom of information and I am concerned that they seem to be increasingly present. We all know the story of Daphne Caruana Galizia who had 47 of such lawsuits at the time of her assassination. I think SLAPPs misuse legal and judiciary systems to silence journalists or anyone else, for instance civil rights defenders, who has the courage to speak up against those in power. Journalists and rights defenders should spend their time in being the watchdogs of our democracies, not in fighting abusive litigation.

 

What is the Commission doing concretely in this regard?

The Commission is working on an initiative to protect journalists and rights defenders against such abusive forms of litigation, but this is a complex issue, because the situation is different across the Member States.

This is why we created an expert group that is assisting us in the preparations for the anti-SLAPP initiative. We are planning to adopt an initiative by the end of this year. 

The anti-SLAPP initiative is one part of our approach to improve the protection of journalists. In the Recommendation on the Safety of Journalists, which I hope to be able to present this September, we will in addition outline a series of other measures, with a particular attention paid to the threats faced by women journalists. We will look into the set-up of hotlines available for journalists, legal and practical support, also when it comes to cybersecurity, training and awareness raising of law enforcement authorities. We will continue to support projects providing legal aid and shelters to journalists.

 

Should this be a directive to all member states that does not allow individual member state to opt out?

My aim is to present measures that work and can truly tackle SLAPPs. All options are at the table, including a combination of legislative and non-legislative measures, but it is too early to speak about such detail.

 

How can the EU protect the journalists from SLAPP suits that originate from non-EU countries?

Legally speaking, we have a cross border recognition of civil and commercial judgements, including defamation cases, for the countries inside the EU. This instrument does not extend beyond the EU. Recognition of judgements from outside the EU is something that falls under national laws.

From the EU side, what we can do is to raise awareness on journalist protection and to ensure training of national judges and other legal professionals.

 

What can the European Parliament and the European Commission do more to protect the interests of the media?

There are many MEPs who are committed on working on these issues and we work well together.

When it comes to the Commission, it is important to understand that the prime responsibility for ensuring media freedom and pluralism lies with the Member States. This doesn’t mean that the Commission cannot take action. We can and certainly do.

We outlined our objectives for media in the EU in the European Democracy and Media and Audiovisual Action Plans. Our focus is on the safety of journalists, promotion of media pluralism, recovery of media from the crisis but also transformation of the media and audiovisual sectors overall.

We are also exploring the possibility for a new legislative tool - the European Media Freedom Act - to increase transparency, independence and accountability of actions affecting freedom of the media within the European Union and the functioning of the internal market.

And we also take decisive action if needed, like when we launched an infringement procedure against Hungary following their decision of not extending the licence of independent radio Klubradio.

For the first time the EU Commission has a comprehensive plan and political determination to act.

 

Hate speech in every EU country has a different interpretation. What is the Commission going to do about this with regards to the legislation itself?

At EU level, we already criminalise hate speech, which incites to violence and hatred because of race, colour, religion, or ethnic origin. The rules are clear, hate speech is a criminal offence also when it occurs online.

I have seen the increase in hate speech online and this is why in 2016 I set up a special Code of Conduct together with major online platforms. The Code has become an important tool in countering the illegal hate speech online and more companies are joining it.

In order to make sure that hate speech and hate crime in general are effectively addressed, the Commission will propose to add them the list of the so-called ‘Eurocrimes’ under the Treaties.

We also proposed the Digital Services Act which establishes effective measures for tackling illegal content, with strong safeguards to make sure that legitimate content, such as the editorial content of media services, stays online and available to citizens.

It is an important piece of legislation and I hope it will be adopted by the European Parliament and Member States as soon as possible.

 

 

VP Jourova will take part in a webinar organized by the European Commission Representation in Malta in collaboration with The Malta Independent, on Monday 21 June 2021 at 09:00am till 10.00am.

The subject chosen for the discussion is "Strengthening the Application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: Freedom of Expression and Information". 

Other speakers for the event include Edward Zammit Lewis, Minister for Justice, Roberta Metsola, First Vice President European Parliament and Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights

A debate and a Q&A session will also follow.

Please rigister here

 

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