How Strategic Lawsuits Are Used to Silence Journalism

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Media analysts say lengthy and costly trials aimed at draining a journalist’s time and resources are a threat to investigative journalism.

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Whose focus was the impact of the legal action known as the Strategic Litigation Against Public Partnership, or SLAPP? the seminar This week.

Most SLAPPs are filed as defamation lawsuits, often targeting journalists covering financial crimes or corruption. And while they often don’t stand up to court, lawsuits attempting to retract a reporter or delete a story are highly demanding for damages.


Or as Matthew Caruana Galizia put it at the conference Tuesday, “the purpose is not to show that the journalist was wrong, it’s only to silence them.”

His mother, investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, was fighting more than 40 trials when she was executed in Malta in 2017. Several are underway, Galizia told the conference.

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The cost of such lawsuits is not lost on Claire Revcastle Brown, founder and editor-in-chief of the news website Sarawak Report.

FILE – British journalist Claire Revcastle Brown speaks during an interview with Agence France-Presse in Kuala Lumpur, May 20, 2018. Revcastle was harassed and maligned for years for running a campaign to expose Malaysian corruption that had helped topple c.

Revcastle Brown was served with a defamation case in 2015 over reporting that alleged links between then-Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal bank accounts and the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, state fund.

Najib was later 12 years in prison on charges of corruption and money laundering.

The lawsuit against Revcastle Brown was settled in early 2019, but the journalist says defending himself came at a high price, including cashing out his pension.

“Your best defense against these guys is nothing they can take away,” Revcastle Brown told Granthshala. “Any journalist who covers a big story involving the wealthy, the first thing you have to admit is that you’re going to be in for a massive, aggressive legal pushback.”

His case was among those discussed at an anti-SLAPP conference, held in London and online, and hosted by the Justice for Journalists Foundation and the Foreign Policy Centre.

“This is a real threat to media freedom,” Susan Coutry, project director for the Foreign Policy Center, told Granthshala. “Journalists are being bullied and face really expensive legal action, which can be incredibly expensive in the UK compared to other jurisdictions, and can be very lengthy and very cumbersome.”

Rights groups have previously criticized UK laws, which they say allow “abusive tourism” to be prosecuted in a country where the alleged crime took place.

legal threat

When the Foreign Policy Center, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and other media groups questioned investigative journalists about the risks in their work, 73% of respondents said they had been threatened with legal action.

NS Study, published at the end of 2020, surveyed 63 journalists from 41 countries.

OCCRP co-founder Paul Radu was sued for defamation in September 2017 after publishing the series “Azerbaijani Laundromat” alleging money laundering among members of the Azeri parliament. Radu was also one of the panelists in the conference.

“For investigation reporting, and especially cross-border investigation reporting, it is important that you be able to do your job properly, without the risk of coming across as a frivolous court case,” Radu told the Granthshala.

The defamation case filed against him in the UK lasted for two years and was resolved a few days before Radu appeared in court. The process was time consuming, expensive and invasive, the journalist said,

As part of the search phase of the lawsuit, Radu’s laptop, phone and hard drive were copied and scanned for keywords – a process that cost them thousands of dollars.

“The bill could be huge,” Radu told Granthshala, “and that’s what the people behind the SLAPP rely on. They rely on you and your resources as your resources run dry.”

Radu credits the OCCRP for providing a means to combat such litigation, including access to lawyers who often work free of charge, insurance, supporting aides, and mental health counseling.

But these support systems are often not available to independent and independent journalists. Because of that, the risk of legal action may limit reporting.

“Outside organizations like the OCCRP, there’s a lot of self-censorship,” Radu told Granthshala. “There are mainstream media in many countries that just don’t do investigative reporting out of fear of SLAPPs.”

‘democratic influence’

Charlie Holt, legal advisor for Greenpeace and UK campaign advisor for English Pen, said the spread of SLAPP has serious implications.

Holt told Granthshala, “This is clearly a pressing problem for individuals, this is clearly a pressing problem for freedom of the press, but there are also democratic ramifications, the way SLAPPs hinder accountability.” ” “Wherever you have a high-profile scam that has been uncovered, you will find that it is almost always preceded by a pattern of lawsuits and legal threats.”

Holt was among the panelists speaking at the conference this week.

Coutry of the Foreign Policy Center said the practice of SLAPP is an “open secret” in the industry that is not often talked about publicly.

“The current system is being misused by some and can be misused because of the cost and drag down the process,” Cotry told Granthshala. “It’s so intimidating.”

He said legislative and regulatory reforms are needed to make the process more equitable for all parties.

Revcastle Brown, who has seen the personal and business impact of such lawsuits, emphasized the impact of SLAPPs on the news industry.

Revcastle Brown said, “It’s cool journalism, it’s freedom of expression, and it’s taking away from the public this very important service that journalists provide.” “It is undermining democracy, and the process is very effectively putting tremendous power in the hands of people who are already overly powerful because of their wealth and influence.”

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