Suppressing Stories: How legal threats and challenges impact investigative journalism
Legal threats against journalists are far from a new phenomenon. Yet in recent years there has been a rising level of concern about the misuse of legal action to inhibit journalism, particularly by those wishing to prevent exposure of their wrong-doing as opposed to address a genuine grievance. Often described as strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPPs), the aim of such action is to intimidate journalists into not publishing information or to amend or take down articles post-publication. These threats can drain the financial, as well as psychological, resources of journalists or their media outlets who can often not afford costly legal action. If successful, the removal of information in this way deprives the public of their right to know and can prevent crimes from coming to light sometimes for decades, if at all.
To mark World Press Freedom Day (3rd May), this webinar hosted by the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) and Index on Censorship, will examine the issue of SLAPP in the UK context as well as other legal developments affecting the environment for investigative journalism, both here and abroad.
The UK has been increasingly recognised as a leading jurisdiction for SLAPP, both domestically and transnationally. A growing number of foreign freelance journalists, and news outlets without staff and offices in the UK, have reported receiving letters from London law firms acting on behalf of the people they are investigating sometimes without obvious links to the country. In November 2020, FPC’s global survey of 63 investigative journalists working on financial crime and corruption in 41 countries found that the UK is by the far the most frequent international country of origin for legal threats, almost as frequent as the EU countries and the United States combined.
Part of the reason the UK remains an attractive jurisdiction is that it is seen as easier to win libel cases in than other parts of the world, despite the introduction of the 2013 Defamation Act in England and Wales. This is largely because the ‘burden of proof’ is on the defendant in what is usually a lengthy and costly process. There have, however, been some recent developments that are likely to affect the landscape for SLAPP actions in the UK. Brexit has provoked new questions on jurisdictional considerations and created uncertainty regarding the applications of judgements on EU nationals. Moreover defamation is not the only law used for SLAPP and there are indications of a shift towards privacy and breach of confidence arguments, which have weaker journalistic exemptions. The ZXC v Bloomberg case, is currently going through appeal at the Supreme Court, has further added to concerns regarding the extent to which privacy can take precedent over the public interest.
While there has been a building momentum in Europe to counter the issue of SLAPPs at a regional level, and anti-SLAPP laws introduced in some parts of the US and elsewhere, the UK has been notably absent in taking action to address this issue. This sits at odds with the UK Government’s own policy objective of protecting media freedom globally.
This webinar is being organised by the Foreign Policy Centre as part of its ‘Unsafe for Scrutiny’ project kindly supported by the Justice for Journalists Foundation.
The event will take place on Zoom.
Gill Phillips, Director of Editorial Legal Services, Guardian News & Media
Franz Wild, Editor and Reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Jessica Ní Mhainín, Policy & Campaigns Manager, Index on Censorship
Susan Coughtrie, Project Director, Foreign Policy Centre
Chair: Chris Matheson MP, Shadow Minister for Media