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New Social Compact

Time to take action against SLAPPs

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Free speech is a cherished right in Europe. But in some countries, certain rich and powerful people use specious lawsuits to censor, harass and ultimately suppress critics. This is a long-standing problem but one that has been increasing in magnitude in recent months. Journalists, activists, and advocacy groups are the preferred targets of these so-called Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

When investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, she was already facing over 40 civil and criminal defamation suits in Malta. Some of these lawsuits have continued posthumously against her family. Throughout August and September 2020, 39 defamation lawsuits were taken out against three journalists at the investigative news website Necenzurirano in Slovenia. Primož Cirman, Vesna Vuković and Tomaž Modic are facing 13 different criminal defamation lawsuits each. They were filed by a tax expert who argues that their reporting on his business dealings – including a controversial loan to the political party of the Slovenian Prime Minister, the SDS – contains false information and has damaged his honour and reputation. In Italy, where defamation is still a criminal offence, several journalists have been targeted by malicious lawsuits with the sole aim of silencing them and draining their time and financial resources. One such example is Federica Angeli, a journalist under threat who is known for her thorough investigations into the Mafia, and has had to fight over 120 lawsuits. In another current case in South Tyrol, criminal court proceedings have been brought by the provincial councillor in charge of agriculture and by apple farmers against environmental activists and the publisher of a book denouncing the high levels of pesticide use in the region.

These are just a few examples of abusive lawsuits intended to intimidate and silence critics. Commonly known as “SLAPPs”, these suits pose a significant and growing threat to the right to freedom of expression in a number of Council of Europe member states, perverting the justice system and the rule of law more generally.

SLAPPs: lawsuits with an intimidating effect

The Annual Report of the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists highlights groundless legal actions by powerful individuals or companies that seek to intimidate journalists into abandoning their investigations. In some cases, the threat of bringing such a suit, including through letters sent by powerful law firms, was enough to bring about the desired effect of halting journalistic investigation and reporting.

This problem goes beyond the press. Public watchdogs in general are affected. Activists, NGOs, academics, human rights defenders, indeed all those who speak out in the public interest and hold the powerful to account might be targeted. SLAPPs are typically disguised as civil or criminal claims such as defamation or libel and have several common features.

First, they are purely vexatious in nature. The aim is not to win the case but to divert time and energy, as a tactic to stifle legitimate criticism. Litigants are usually more interested in the litigation process itself than the outcome of the case. The aim of distracting or intimidating is often achieved by rendering the legal proceedings expensive and time-consuming. Demands for damages are often exaggerated.

Another common quality of a SLAPP is the power imbalance between the plaintiff and the defendant. Private companies or powerful people usually target individuals, alongside the organisations they belong to or work for, as an attempt to intimidate and silence critical voices, based purely on the financial strength of the complainant.

It should be no surprise that SLAPPs are multiplying in areas such as environmental and consumer protection, crime prevention or corruption allegations. A typical example is when a large company sues journalists or activists who have exposed an environmental disaster. France is a case in point. In 2018 two companies affiliated to the Bolloré Group sued three newspapers (Mediapart, L’Obs and Le Point) and two NGOs (Sherpa and ReAct) for defamation for publishing accusations of land grabbing made by villagers and farmers in Cameroon. This was one of more than 20 lawsuits filed by companies associated with the Bolloré Group, particularly palm oil companies Socfin and Socapalm.

I have also recently received information about specious lawsuits against LGBTI activists, in which wealthy conservative organisations have taken local human rights defenders to court as a means of intimidating them and hampering their work.

Existing standards applicable to SLAPPs

The European Court of Human Rights has made it very clear: unreasonably high damages for defamation claims can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Therefore, there must be adequate domestic safeguards so as to avoid disproportionate awards being granted. The Court has also stressed that States are required to create a favourable environment for participation in public debate by all, enabling everyone to express their opinions and ideas without fear.

Member states therefore have a positive obligation to secure the enjoyment of the rights enshrined in Article 10 of the Convention: not only must they refrain from any interference with the individual’s freedom of expression, but they are also under a positive obligation to protect his or her right to freedom of expression from any infringement, including by private individuals.

Several texts adopted at the Council of Europe refer explicitly to the problem of SLAPPs or other forms of intimidating or vexatious litigation against journalists and media outlets, including online media. The Recommendation on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries, adopted by the Committee of Ministers in March 2018, states explicitly that “State authorities should consider the adoption of appropriate legislation to prevent strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) or abusive and vexatious litigation against users, content providers and intermediaries which is intended to curtail the right to freedom of expression.”

In addition, the 2012 Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the Desirability of International Standards dealing with Forum Shopping in respect of Defamation, to ensure Freedom of Expression, touches upon a specific aspect of SLAPPs, namely so-called “libel tourism”, a tactic that is used by many litigators who file a complaint with the court thought most likely to provide a favourable judgment and where it is easy to sue.

Finding the right response

To counter SLAPPs effectively, a comprehensive response should be devised. In my view, this should follow a threefold approach:

  • preventing the filing of SLAPPs by allowing the early dismissal of such suits. This should go hand in hand with an awarenessraising exercise among judges and prosecutors, and proper implementation of the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights on defamation;
  • introducing measures to punish abuse, particularly by reversing the costs of proceedings;
  • minimising the consequences of SLAPPs by giving practical support to those who are sued.

To make this happen, governments, but also journalists, human rights defenders and civil society need to act decisively. I found it encouraging to see that a coalition of NGOs recently published a policy paper on how the EU should end SLAPPs and proposed a number of short- to medium-term measures to address this issue at EU level.

It is high time to tackle a practice which puts pressure both on journalists and on civil society as a whole and dissuades them from critical reporting. This is all the more important at a time when access to information is under strain, with governments seizing emergency powers to ban assemblies, reducing the ability of NGOs and journalists to do field work and sometimes also reining in critical media.

While this practice primarily affects the right to freedom of expression, it also has a dramatic impact on public interest activities more broadly: it discourages the exercise of other fundamental freedoms such as the right to freedom of assembly and association and undermines the work of human rights defenders. This means that it touches on many aspects of my mandate and I will continue to pay close attention to this issue. I believe that the Council of Europe and its member states are well placed to play a role in this context.

Council of Europe

New Social Compact

The Social Innovators of the Year 2022

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Mikaela Jade. (Image: Veuve Clicquot New Generation Awards)

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship announced today 15 awardees for social innovation in 2022.

From a Brazilian entrepreneur using hip-hop to turn Favela youth away from crime, a Dutch nurse revolutionizing home healthcare and a park ranger turned tech founder using Minecraft to revive Australia’s Indigenous culture, the 2022 Social Innovators of the Year includes a list of outstanding founders and chief executive officers, multinational and regional business leaders, government leaders and recognized experts.

The awardees were selected by Schwab Foundation Board members, including Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Prime Minister of Denmark (2011-2015), and social innovation expert Johanna Mair, Professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School of Governance in Germany, and H.M. Queen Mathilde of Belgium, Honorary Board Member, in recognition of their innovative approach and potential for global impact.

“The Social Innovators of the Year 2022 represent a new ecosystem of leaders who are driving change and shifting organizations and systems towards a more just, inclusive, sustainable future,” said Hilde Schwab, Co-Founder and Chairperson of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

The Schwab Foundation’s unique community of social innovators dates back more than two decades to 1998 when Hilde Schwab, together with her husband Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, created the foundation to support a new model for social change, combining often-overlooked values of mission, compassion and dedication with the best business principles on the planet to serve the most disadvantaged people on earth and build a better society.

Today, the foundation has a thriving community of 400 global social entrepreneurs that have impacted the lives of 722 million people in 190 countries. They offer access to healthcare, education, housing, finance, digital skills and advocacy networks resulting in job creation economic opportunity, improved health and stability.

To help the social enterprise sector increase its reach in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Schwab Foundation established the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs early 2020, representing 90+ members and an estimated 100,000 entrepreneurs as the largest collaborative in the sector.

“This year’s Schwab Foundation Awardees demonstrate that through values-based approaches centring on inclusivity, collaboration, relationships of trust and long-term sustainability, we have proven ways of changing institutions and mindsets, and disrupting traditional ways of working that hold systemic barriers in place,” said François Bonnici, Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

The 2022 Schwab Foundation Awards are hosted in a long-term partnership with the Motsepe Foundation, founded on the philosophy of “Ubuntu”, the African concept of giving and caring for your neighbour and other members of your community.

“I strongly believe social entrepreneurship, combined with local innovation and technology, can create meaningful change and recovery in Africa and many developing nations. At its core it is about bringing together the best of business discipline and efficiency with the best of human and social values. We need this synergy, now more than ever,” said Precious Moloi-Motsepe, Co-Chair, Motsepe Foundation and Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

The 2022 awardees are:
Social entrepreneurs

Founders or chief executive officers who solve a social or environmental problem, with a focus on low-income, marginalized or vulnerable populations.

Ashraf Patel, Co-Founder of Pravah and ComMutiny Youth Collective (CYC), India: For almost three decades, Patel has nurtured inside-out youth leadership with collective organisations. This ecosystem has co-created the right space, context and narrative that has reached over 15 million young people.

Celso Athayde, Founder, Central Unica das Favelas (CUFA) and Chief Executive Officer, Favela Holding, Brazil: One of Brazil’s best-known social entrepreneurs, Athayde founded the nation’s largest social enterprise focused on favela communities, using music and sport to transform their lives.

Jos de Blok, Founder, Buurtzorg, Netherlands: de Blok is revolutionizing nursing around the world with buurtzorg, meaning neighbourhood care, which puts nurses and patients at the heart of its social enterprise model.

Kennedy Odede, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), Kenya: Passion, 20 cents and a soccer ball were the building blocks for Odede’s social enterprise SHOFCO, which is transforming urban slums and providing economic hope.

Marlon Parker, Co-Founder, Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs) and Rene Parker, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director, RLabs, South Africa: Marlon and Renee Parker grew a Cape Town community project helping ex-convicts into a global social enterprise that has helped around 20 million disadvantaged people by offering tech skills, training, funding and workspaces.

Mikaela Jade, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Indigital, Australia: From park ranger to tech founder, Jade founded Australia’s first Indigenous edu-tech company using augmented and mixed realities to preserve and teach Indigenous culture and history.

Rana Dajani, Founder and Director, Taghyeer/We Love Reading, Jordan: Dajani sparked a global reading revolution, training female volunteers to read to kids. We Love Reading now operates in 56 countries, benefiting nearly half a million children.

Wenfeng Wei (Jim), Founder and Chief Executive Officer, DaddyLab, People’s Republic of China: “Daddy Wei” is a social media champion for safer consumer goods. His enterprise DaddyLab is a one-stop shop for trusted product testing, consumer rights advice for families.

Corporate social intrapreneurs

Leaders within multinational or regional companies who drive the development of new products, initiatives, services or business models that address societal and environmental challenges.

Gisela Sanchez, Corporate Affairs, Marketing, Strategy and Sustainability Director, Bac International Bank and Board Member, Nutrivida, Costa Rica: Nutritional food firm Nutrivida, the brainchild of Gisela Sanchez, combats a lack of vitamins and minerals in the diet, known as hidden hunger, that affects 2 billion people.

Sam McCracken, Founder and General Manager, Nike N7, USA: A member of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes from the Ft Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, McCracken founded Nike N7 20 years ago with a vision of using the power of sport to promote cultural awareness. It demonstrates Nike’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion with the Indigenous populations of North America. Today, N7 has benefited more than 500,000 Indigenous youth.

Public social intrapreneurs

Government leaders who harness the power of social innovation social entrepreneurship to create public good through policy, regulation or public initiatives.

Pradeep Kakkattil, Director of Innovation, UNAIDS, Switzerland: Kakkattil founded global platform HIEx to link innovators, governments and investors and find solutions to global healthcare problems, from COVID diagnosis to the cost of medicines.

Sanjay Pradhan, Chief Executive Officer, Open Government Partnership (OGP), Global: Pradhan has been a tireless champion of good governance and fighting corruption, leading a partnership of 78 countries, 76 local governments and thousands of civil society organizations that are working together to make governments more open and less corrupt.

Social innovation thought leaders

Recognized experts and champions shaping the evolution of social innovation.

Alberto Alemanno, Professor of Law, HEC Paris and Founder, The Good Lobby, European Union, France: Alemanno is passionate about overcoming social, economic and political inequalities. His civic start-up, The Good Lobby, kickstarted a movement for ethical and sustainable lobbying.

Adam Kahane, Director, Reos Partners, Canada: Kahane is a global leader in helping diverse teams of leaders work together, across their differences, to address their most important and intractable issues. He has facilitated breakthrough projects in more than 50 countries on climate action, racial equity, democratic governance, Indigenous rights, health, food, energy, water, education, justice and security.

Hahrie Han, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Professor of Political Science, Inaugural Director of the SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University, USA: Han is a leading academic and author on collective action and the way citizens can collaborate to solve public problems and influence policy, from immigration to voting rights.

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New Social Compact

Grace and a Tennis Celebrity

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image source: Wikipedia

Among the character traits we cherish in fellow humans, grace is often more noticeable in its absence.  The recent saga of a Serbian tennis player and his manner of entry into Australia and subsequent events come to mind.  A champion athlete cannot help but serve as an ambassador for his country, and in Serbia’s case, after the horrors of the Yugoslavia civil war and its prominent role, it is a country that needs all the help it can get. 

Novak Djokovic is ranked number one in the world and is in Australia to defend his title.  He appears to have lied on his Australian entry form:  False declarations are grounds for revoking a visa, and immigration officials acted.  But as world number one, he is a draw for the tournament … and money talks — he is already scheduled to play his first match as this is written. 

Mr. Djokovic’s lawyers went to court which overturned the immigration officials’ order against him on the grounds they had not followed proper procedure.  Then the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, who had been thinking about canceling his visa actually did.  So it’s back to court.

But it gets worse:  Djokovic has not been vaccinated.  He claims that having had the illness, he is immune.  Scientists have found that to be of short duration.

He also broke isolation rules after he had tested positive, particularly by not isolating himself, thereby endangering his contacts.  Cavalier his behavior maybe, perhaps careless but possibly a sense that rules are not for celebrities, only for lesser mortals.

That it caused a sense of outrage is apparent.  A leaked video has a couple of news anchors discussing Djokovic in not very flattering terms:  “Novak Djokovic is a lying, sneaky asshole”, says one.  Yet the comment also is evidence of a coarseness that has gradually pervaded language.

In the meantime, Mr. Djokovic’s father has his own take on the affair.  He calls it a conspiracy to prevent his son from breaking the previous record of 20 Grand Slam title wins held by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer because they are all against Serbia.  But Serbia, which still believes in little Jesus and is thus protected, will prevail.

Would aphorisms like ‘a storm-in-a-teacup’ or ‘mountains out of a molehill’ be descriptive?  Not if it’s news across the world.  Yet, if he continues to rant on the tennis court and win, it could be his way of getting rid of nerves, an eternal bugaboo. 

He must have another crucial concern:  the biological clock.  At 34 going on to 35 in five months, and with much younger rivals snapping at his heels, it has to be a race against time to win that 21st major title.

Just like grace notes relieve tedium in music, perhaps Djokovic’s rants relieve the boring baseline game that modern tennis has become.  No more a Frank Sedgman or a Pancho Gonzales charging up to the net to put away a dramatic volley, tennis now needs a grace note, or two, or three …  

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New Social Compact

Age No Bar: A Paradigm Shift in the Girl Child’s Marriageable Age in India

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Image source: indiatoday.in

India is a country known to have diverse culture, languages, social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, belief system, religions and their personal laws. With personal laws governing succession, adoption, divorce etc, one of the most important aspects governed by the personal laws is Marriage. Indian society has a deep-rooted belief of marriages being the most sacred bond between two people. Every religion of the country gives utmost importance to this sacred bond. Since this bond is of such great importance to the Indian society and to the people of the country, the legal system and the personal laws have made efforts to legalise the sacred bond. There are conditions and requirements laid down for the marriage to be solemnized and get a legal sanction. One such important condition is “age”. According to most of the personal laws and The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 the legal age for a man should not be less than 21 years of age and a woman 18 years of age. Recently the government introduced The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 to raise the age of marriage for women from 18 years to 21 years

Introduction of this bill shall prove to be a ray of hope for people struggling to curb the evil of child marriage in our country. One cannot claim progress unless women progress on all fronts including their physical, mental and reproductive health. The Constitution guarantees gender equality as part of the fundamental rights and also guarantees prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sex. This bill would bring women equal to the men as far as the legal age of marriage in concerned. Under the National Family Health Survery-5, it is stated 7% of the girls aged between 15 and 18 years were found to be pregnant and nearly 23% of the girls in the age group of 20 to 24 were married below the age of 18 years. There are researches to point that from 2015 to 2020, 20 lakhs child marriages have been stopped.

In my opinion, increasing the age of women from 18 years to 21 should not be seen solely as an equal opportunity for them to choose their life partners at the same age as that of men, but this is a step taken by the government to eradicate child marriages that still find way in to our society. It should be seen as an effort to bring down maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate. It shall also try and curb the teenage pregnancies, which are extremely harmful for women’s overall health as well as the infants born out of it. We also have to take into consideration that a large part of our society still lack basic education and awareness about these laws and the advantages attached to it. We as educated citizens of the country should take extra efforts in making people aware and to make them understand about the disadvantages associated with child marriage and the overall consequences their children would face in the future. We should appreciate the efforts taken by the government to tackle gender inequality and gender discrimination adequate measures taken to secure health, welfare and empowerment of our women and girls and to ensure status and opportunity for them at par with men.

*The Views Expressed are Strictly Personal

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