Sweden: The settlement which closed a gag lawsuit risks negatively impacting press freedom
A businessman and his company have dropped their vexatious lawsuit against Realtid and have paid it an undisclosed sum of money after the newspaper committed to publishing an apology. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) fears the deal will negatively impact media freedom and urges the Swedish authorities to take new measures against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
“We understand that the threat of heavy fines and legal costs in a court in the United Kingdom was intimidating for Realtid. But the settlement may encourage further SLAPPs against the media and have an effect of self-censorship on their journalists in a country with strong standards of press freedom and media ethics.
“The resolution of the Realtid case serves a bitter lesson to Sweden. As a country ranked third in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, it has to apply new measures to prevent and sanction abusive lawsuits inspired by the proposal for an anti-SLAPP directive and recommendations approved by the European Commission in April 2022.
On 14 January, the business and finance publication Realtid published an apology in the introduction to several of its investigative pieces after it reached a settlement with businessman Svante Kumlin and his company Eco Energy World (EEW). It will also receive a payment of an undisclosed amount of money from the entrepreneur and his firm as part of the deal.
Although the apology emphasises that Realtid stands by its reporting and has “not made any amendments to [its] content,” it underlines that the articles are “not intended to suggest that Mr. Kumlin [...] has engaged in any wrongful conduct” and is “happy to apologise to Mr Kumlin for any personal distress caused to him by [its] reporting.”
The ambiguity of the apology confirms the vexatious character of the lawsuits which were filed to prove defamation of Svante Kumlin and EEW, and not causing “personal distress”. In fact, as a result of the settlement, the journalists won’t be able to prove the accuracy of their reporting in court.
Commenting on the settlement, Realtid’s editor-in-chief Camilla Jonsson said however that “after a two-year litigation in another country we look forward to being able to focus fully on our mission.” The newspaper’s CEO referred to the quote as Realtid’s official statement adding that the “possibility to sue Swedish journalists in another country underlines the fact that the laws need to get sharper.”
Svante Kumlin and EEW launched lawsuits against the editor-in-chief Camilla Jonsson and the freelance journalists Annelie Östlund and Per Agerman in a court in the United Kingdom in November 2020. They were condemned as vexatious by RSF and its partners from the very beginning.
In its articles published in the fall of 2020, Realtid was investigating EEW ahead of an impending stock market launch in Norway, clearly a matter of public interest. Prior to publication, the journalists contacted Kumlin and EEW to request an interview and reply, but neither were provided.
When the High Court in London began examining the lawsuit in March 2021, more than 20 local and international organisations including RSF expressed solidarity with the three journalists and called the proceeding a SLAPP. In May 2022, 10 of 13 lawsuits were dismissed by the judge. The court found indeed that the prosecution for defamation was baseless in the case of five out of the eight articles.
Yet, instead of defending the content of the remaining three articles, Realtid's board and CEO now decided to enter a settlement with Svante Kumlin and his company. The apology published as a result of a gag lawsuit is unprecedented in the modern history of Swedish media.