RSF condemns gag-lawsuits in Spain and urges the government to provide a protective legislation for media
After intimidating and costly lawsuits against Spanish news websites such as infoLibre and El Confidencial in 2022, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges Spain to adopt measures recommended by the European Commission to fight against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (or SLAPPs) to curb abusive use of such “gag-lawsuits”.
This year saw the adoption of anti-SLAPP measures at the European level for the first time ever, but it also saw SLAPPs, or gag-suits, being used in an attempt to intimidate several Spanish media outlets.
“In most SLAPP cases against media and journalists in Spain, the final goal is intimidation rather than imprisonment. The aim is to silence and to frighten, and to promote self-censorship. This erodes the human, economic and even psychological resources of the targeted journalists.”
One of the latest cases was brought in September by Francisco Serrano, the far-right Vox party’s former candidate for the presidency of the Andalusian regional government. Serrano has accused infoLibre and one if its journalists, Ángel Munárriz, of divulging confidential information about him in 2020, including allegations of a public subsidy fraud to the tune of 2.4 million euros. Following the website’s reports, criminal investigations were opened against Serrano and three other people on suspicion of fraud.
As a result of Serrano’s suit, in which he claims that infoLibre defamed him repeatedly for two years, Munárriz faces the possibility of up to four years in prison under article 199 of the Spanish Penal Code. InfoLibre was previously accused of divulging confidential information by the former president of the Murcia regional government in 2021, but was acquitted a year later.
17.5 million-euro lawsuit
El Confidencial is being sued in connection with the approximately 50 articles it published from 2019 to 2021 about Ignacio Sánchez Galán, the president of the Spanish electricity giant Iberdrola, who allegedly collaborated with former police commissioner José Manuel Villarejo in spying on politicians and businessmen. El Confidencial’s investigation contributed to Villarejo’s arrest and indictment on charges of blackmail and corruption, and to the opening of investigations into the Iberdrola group.
In February 2022, Iberdrola nonetheless sued Titania Compañía Editorial, the publishing house that owns El Confidencial, and three of their journalists for 17.5 million euros for waging a media campaign to harass, discret and defame Galán for 17.5 millions euros in damage which amounts to 70% of the website’s turnover.
Despite the threat posed by this astronomical sum in damages, El Confidencial deputy director Carlos Sánchez seems relatively optimistic about the way the trial is going, and the fact that the prosecutor has called for the entire case to be dismissed. El Confidencial is one of the few Spanish news sites to have substantial, independent shareholders, which has helped it to avoid excessively costly suits in the past.
Lawsuits from both state and private sector almost always allege either “right to honour” such as defamation or “disclosure of confidential information”. In 2018, Cristina Cifuentes, the then president of the Madrid regional government, sued elDiario.es director Ignacio Escolar for allegedly divulging confidential information after he published a long investigative report claiming that she had obtained a postgraduate degree fraudulently. After dragging on for three years, the case was finally dismissed and Cifuentes resigned.
The flood of lawsuits seems to reflect a desire on the part of big business and politicians to gag the media by “judicial” means and keep a lid on the public debate. “Abusive lawsuits create a feeling of vulnerability and anxiety among journalists, who are exposed to accusations that could result in imprisonment or at least damage to their reputation,” infoLibre director Daniel Basterio said.
“Spain must provide journalists with better protection against the misuse of lawsuits to intimidate the media.The solutions are there, waiting to be applied. We call on Spain’s institutions to quickly adopt the measures recommended by the European Commission for combating SLAPPs. The Commission has provided for procedural safeguards and for sanctions against gag suits that can be implemented at the national level.”
In response to the SLAPP problem, which is common to all of Europe, the European Commission adopted recommendations designed to ensure that journalists can continue to do investigative reporting about the powerful businessmen and politicians who resort to SLAPPs to discourage and silence them.
The recommendations include preventive measures that make it possible to quickly dismiss lawsuits that are abusive, and punitive measures for penalising those who file SLAPPs and deterring others from resorting to them.
Spain is ranked 32nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2022 World Press Freedom Index.