The Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) investigated the role of self-regulatory bodies regarding Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) against journalists in Europe.
SLAPPs have become an important issue in Europe. In 2022, the European Commission presented a recommendation to protect people who engage in public participation, including journalists, from manifestly unfounded and abusive court proceedings. The text considers self-regulatory bodies as key actors. ULB researchers Marie Fierens, Florence le Cam, David Domingo, and Simone Benazzo explored the role of self-regulation in the fight against SLAPPs.
13 media councils and three ethical committees of professional associations responded to their questionnaire. It aimed at identifying the position of each surveyed body: its knowledge, experience and perception of SLAPPs, its understanding of its role and rules regarding SLAPPs, the judiciary environment of its country in this matter and its knowledge about European legislation.
Territorial tensions emerged from the analysis. These tensions are related to the 'professional jurisdictions' of these institutions (Abbott, 1988). Each professional jurisdiction claims and controls specific tasks and includes the way by which the organisations dealing with ethical issues conceive their role, their legitimacy, and their capacity to act. Jurisdiction is about defining boundaries: what society allows a group to do, but also what the group sets for itself in terms of missions, rights, and duties.
Results show that bodies working in countries not so affected by SLAPPs tend to have more vague and less alarming representations than those that are grappling with many cases. They also show that different attitudes towards SLAPPs divide media councils and journalists’ associations. The former are composed of publishers, journalists, and sometimes public representatives, and mediate potentially divergent interests. The latter are professional organisations dedicated to journalists. Media councils tend to defer the ability to act and fight against SLAPPs to the professional associations and few of them consider SLAPPs as an ethical issue, and therefore in their field of expertise, because of their legal nature.
The analysis should therefore be understood against the backdrop of the debate on the reconceptualization of the (self-perceived) role of professional journalism in a phase of accelerated technological innovation and global decline of media freedom, and ultimately on its relationship with democracy (Hanitzsch & Vos, 2017, Peters & Witschge, 2015). Media organisations find themselves between the devil and the deep sea. On the one hand, they are experiencing a legitimacy crisis, with growing vocal criticism of their expertise and public scepticism on their ability to perform their function of informing the public impartially. This scepticism is also reflected in the rise of outright attacks against them, as SLAPPs merely represent one sub-category. On the other hand, they are confronted with media actors that have become more and more assertive in the pursuit of their self-interests, with scarce recognition of supposedly foundational journalistic values, which are crucial for them to properly function. However, if they were to embrace a more proactive and confrontational role, this would risk fueling that dynamic of (self-)delegitimisation, thus spiralling into a self-fulfilling prophecy that would prove their detractors right.
The research has been carried out in the frame Media Councils in the Digital Age (MCDA) project, with the support of its members and co-funded by the European Commission.
Abbott, Andrew (1988) The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hanitzsch, Thomas, and Vos, Tim P. (2017) Journalistic roles and the struggle over institutional identity: The discursive constitution of journalism. Communication theory, 27(2), 115-135.
Peters, Chris and Witschge, Tamara (2015) From grand narratives of democracy to small expectations of participation: Audiences, citizenship, and interactive tools in digital journalism. Journalism practice, 9(1), 19-34