European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2019.
European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2019. Reuters / YVES HERMAN

The European Union executive proposed on Wednesday laws to curb excessive litigation aimed at silencing critical journalists and rights advocates by governments and businesses, a form of harassment it said was on the rise from Croatia to Poland.

In its latest health check of the state of democracy in the 27-nation bloc, the Brussels-based European Commission said that last year such so-called SLAPPs - or strategic lawsuits against public participation - were "a serious concern".

"Manifestly unfounded or abusive court proceedings against public participation are a recent but increasingly prevalent phenomenon in the European Union," the Commission said on Wednesday in proposing new legal remedies for the bloc.

Such disproportionate lawsuits, often based on defamation clauses, strive to intimidate the targets, exhaust their resources and tie them in multiple legal proceedings, often in several jurisdictions, said the Commission.

It is typically pursued by claimants with more political power or money, and has a chilling effect on the targets, a group that may also include academics, LGBT and environmental campaigners or labour unionists, it said.

In Malta, the anti-corruption investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was involved in some 40 defamation cases at the time of her murder in 2017, it added.

"In a democracy, wealth and power cannot give anyone an advantage over truth," said the Commission's deputy head for values and transparency, Vera Jourova. "We are helping to protect those who take risks and speak up when the public interest is at stake."

The Commission said no EU country currently has specific safeguards against SLAPPs and only four were considering them.

The new rules, which Brussels would now take to member states and the European Parliament for their input and approval before they can take effect, would allow for early dismissal of such cases and put all the legal costs on the claimant.

They would apply to cases with cross-border consequences of broad social interest - like pursuing cases of money laundering or climate matters - and would also encompass training and assistance for SLAPP targets.

The EU parliament's green faction welcomed the proposal but said it did not go far enough partly because it did not oblige member states to ensure the same anti-SLAPP safeguards for domestic cases and consider them under civil rather than criminal law.

In their own report on the matter last year, EU lawmakers also expressed concern about SLAPPs being funded from state budgets.

Under the Commission's proposal on Wednesday, SLAPP targets could seek damages and courts would be authorised to order penalties against the claimants to discourage them from such tactics.

It would also allow EU countries to ignore cases against its residents brought in third countries including Britain, the jurisdiction of choice for many Russian oligarchs, among others.