The Anti-Corruption Fund Foundation (ACF) has presented a new report titled The Price of Free Speech. Analysis of lawsuits against public participation in Bulgaria exhibiting the characteristics of SLAPP litigation.
The report represents the first attempt to systematically review and examine the
legal practice regarding the so-called strategic lawsuits against public representation (SLAPP) in Bulgaria from 2000 to March 2023. It contains analysis and commentary of the case law pertaining to 65 civil, criminal, administrative-criminal and disciplinary proceedings. Also included are three decisions of the European Court on Human Rights on cases containing elements of SLAPP.
“SLAPP lawsuits are court proceedings — either manifestly unfounded or featuring exaggerated claims — through which politicians, businesspeople, corporations or public institutions attempt to abuse the legal system in order to apply financial and psychological pressure against journalists and civic activists. The end goal of such litigation is to threaten and censor,” said Lora Georgieva and Sofia Zheleva, authors of the report and legal advisors at the ACF.
“In many cases, the claimants are well aware their cases are not strong enough to hold in court,” said Lora Georgieva. “What they are after is not victory but continued judicial pressure.”
A large majority of all civic and criminal proceedings studied were decided in favor of the targeted journalists (some 87.5% of all civil cases and 86% of all criminal cases).
“These results offer little comfort because a relatively high percentage of all court cases — 12.5% of all civic cases and 14% of all criminal cases — end up with convictions of journalists,” said Sofia Zheleva.
Even when they end with acquittals, SLAPP lawsuits still serve their purpose as they manage to engage considerable resources, in terms of personal time and energy as well as financial resources, on behalf of the targeted journalists and civic activists for significant periods.
The average duration of all SLAPP lawsuits was 2.8 years. Typically, they go through all possible instances of the court system, which means that, on average, they last nearly three years.
Out of all 64 court cases analyzed for the report, a total of 20 continued for two years, 19 took three years, while six took five or more years. For all of the reviewed cases, Bulgarian journalists, media representatives, and civic activists spent a cumulative 181 years in courtrooms.
“During the trials the targeted journalists and civic activists had to continue working knowing full well that they could again be the subject of unfounded litigation,” said the authors.
The ongoing stress and pressure during the proceedings, as well as their outcomes, resonate with the whole journalistic community and the whole of society and pose serious risk of further deterring public participation.
The data has shown a growing trend in the number of cases filed and the compensation amounts sought from claimants. From 2000 to March 2023, the number of initiated SLAPP lawsuits has been growing steadily, as have the amounts sought in compensation in civil cases.
The years 2015 and 2018 saw the largest numbers of cases filed. In addition, 50 out of all 64 SLAPP lawsuits initiated between 2015 and 2023.
During the last two years analyzed for the report, two SLAPP lawsuits have been initiated with compensation claims worth BGN1 mln.
“The significant sums requested as compensation for damages as well as motions to freeze defendants’ assets apply psychological pressure on the targets of SLAPP lawsuits and create a serious risk of self-censorship or censorship by the targeted media outlet in addition to threatening the financial stability of media organizations,” said Sofia Zheleva.
Alternative Forms of Pressure. Besides initiating civil and criminal proceedings against journalists, other equally intimidating tactics are used by those who seek to limit freedom of expression in Bulgaria. Examples include: unfounded administrative or administrative-criminal proceedings against media outlets and civic organisations; disciplinary proceedings; physical violence against journalists; interrogation of journalists in pre-trial proceedings as a tactic to uncover journalistic sources; charging journalists with crimes as a tool of applying institutional pressure; hate speech; threats and intimidation.
“SLAPP lawsuits limit public debate and impede members of the public in their quest for reliable information. Therefore, it is crucial to monitor it carefully and apply legislative and other measures to limit the prevalence of this dangerous phenomenon,” said Boyko Stankushev, director of the ACF.
The whole report is available here: https://acf.bg/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/cenata_na-svobodnoto_slovo_web.pdf