Company targets environmental activist in SLAPP lawsuit

Expression

While Portugal ranks 18th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders' 2017 World Press Freedom Index, full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression is hampered by the use of defamation laws and financial issues within the media sector. According to the Index on Censorship, over the last year Portugal has also witnessed public officials questioning the work of journalists. There are also instances of journalists being harassed and attacked for their words. The Index's João de Almeida Dia said in that regard that:

"Besides motivating a new and stimulating debate between journalists and their readers/viewers/listeners, this has also opened the gates to instances of abuse, cyber bullying and slander".
Portuguese activist faces SLAPP lawsuit for exposing pollution

Private companies in Portugal are also behind attacks on free expression. In a recent example, environmental activist Arlindo Marquês was sued by the paper production company Celtejo after he accused it of polluting the Tagus River (Rio Tejo in Portuguese) at unacceptable levels. The company is justifying the lawsuit by claiming that Marques' allegations constitute “offences to its credibility and good name”. The company is seeking 250,000 EUR in damages and Marquês is crowdfunding to support his defence, which can be viewed in the video clip below:

Marquês is a well-known environmental activist and was awarded a citizenship prize for his work by the assembly of the municipality of Mação.

Many consider this lawsuit an example of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), described by the Public Participation Project as "damaging suits [which] chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest". Many environmental activists and organisations, including Greenpeace, have faced similar suits in recent years and warn that this harmful tactic is on the rise. 

Marquês is not alone in his criticism of Celtejo and many others had publicly denounced the company’s pollution of the river. Also, the Portuguese Environment Agency called the firm a "significant contributor to pollution in the upper section of the [Tagus]". Marquês has accused Celtejo’s management of "psychological terrorism" and said he would keep on speaking out against pollution in the river.

Mayor of Porto targets journalist

In September 2017, Mayor Rui Moreira of Porto was running for reelection and circulated false information about a journalist’s personal life in an attempt to discredit her work. The journalist in question, Margarida Gomes, had written about a dispute over the ownership of a piece of land in Porto. According to her reporting, since 2001 a construction company owned by Moreira's family had claimed to own the land but a new document uncovered by Gomes proved that it was actually the property of the City of Porto. Moreira responded to the allegation by alleging that Gomes was influenced by her former husband who had been an adviser to Moreira's political opponent.

Positive legal change

On 9th February, the Portuguese parliament voted in favour of a law that will amend Article 132 of the nation's Criminal Code. As a result, journalists will be granted “protected” status. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the new measures mean that journalists join "judges, lawyers, witnesses, security personnel and sports referees – against whom such offences as threats, constraint, defamation and insult are treated as serious crimes in the same way as murder, physical violence and abduction".

Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk, stated that:

"We welcome the Portuguese parliament’s approval of this positive initiative designed to reinforce legislative protection for journalists in the course of their work [...] These measures are in line with RSF’s recommendations, which promote reinforcement of international regulations on journalists’ safety..."

Association

A report by Portuguese television channel TVI showed that the president of the charity Raríssimas used more than 1.5 million EUR, half of which came from public funds, for his personal expenses. The scandal also involved public figures, including the Secretary of State for Health. The charity's president was allegedly using the money to fund certain luxuries, while the organisation’s finances were in trouble. The scandal caused a strong public reaction, including from far-right groups that attacked the work of NGOs in general. According to Portuguese civil society sources, the nonprofit sector fears that the public outcry over the scandal could lead to a decline in donations.