SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation". This refers to lawsuits where corporations aim to put journalists or NGOs under legal pressure in order to nip reports about human rights violations, alleged corruption, fraudulent financial practices and/or environmental damage in the bud. Often, the simple threat of legal action can have an effect, as smaller NGOs or journalists in particular are unable to engage in costly and time-consuming litigation.
For Christa Luginbühl, member of the executive board of Public Eye, it is important "that we educate the Swiss public about how fact-based civil society criticism is increasingly being met with threats of legal action and intimidation suits. Because investigative research and open debate are elemental to a functioning democracy, policymakers must quickly find a response to this harmful trend."
A dozen lawsuits since 2018
A survey by the NGO HEKS of eleven organisations last year showed that intimidation lawsuits against critical NGO reports have also increased massively in Switzerland. While only two threats of legal action were registered between 2000 and 2010, the NGOs surveyed have been confronted with 17 legal intimidation attempts since 2010. Around a dozen lawsuits have also been filed since 2018, several of which will be heard in court this year. Associations from the media industry also report that media professionals in Switzerland have had to defend themselves in several cases in recent years against substantively futile but nevertheless costly lawsuits.
A current NGO example is the lawsuit of the Malaysian politician's daughter Jamilah Taib Murray against the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), which went into another round on 16 August 2023.The plaintiff, who is worth millions, is trying to ban 249 BMF publications in which her family is accused of having profited from the unlawful deforestation of the rainforest in Malaysia. After the Basel public prosecutor's office had already dropped a criminal case brought by the real estate entrepreneur against BMF, the NGO is defending itself in civil court. According to Johanna Michel, the deputy director of the Bruno Manser Fonds, this is a SLAPP lawsuit given the fact that "attempts are being made to discredit us and ruin us economically: It is important not to be muzzled by such lawsuits. SLAPP must not be profitable for potentates and corporations."
Alliance with over a dozen members
This is one of the reasons why in the summer the "Swiss Alliance against SLAPP" was founded in Berne. Over a dozen Swiss civil society organisations intend to work together against a further increase in SLAPP cases, including Public Eye, the Bruno Manser Fonds, HEKS, Helvetas, Greenpeace Switzerland, MultiWatch, the Society for Threatened Peoples, terre des hommes schweiz, Solidar Suisse, SWISSAID and TRIAL International. Impressum, an association of Swiss media professionals, is also a member of the alliance. Its managing director, Urs Thalmann, knows that "journalists are also increasingly being put under pressure with lawsuits. We are committed to ensuring that independent and critical reporting remains possible."
Further information: www.allianz-gegen-slapp.ch