SLAPPs: a threat to journalists and media freedom worldwide

  • 18 May 2022

Hear from our panel including investigative journalists who have faced SLAPPs action. Submit a response to government’s consultation closing 19 May.

Strategic lawsuits against public partcipation (SLAPPs) have gained recent media attention as a result of high profile cases against journalists including Catherine Belton and Tom Burgis. The NUJ's webinar on 10 May brought an expert panel together to discuss the impact of litigation on journalists, and what action can be taken to stop SLAPPs.

Susan Coughtrie, Foreign Policy Centre project director, discussed the challenging and expensive process involved in journalists defending themselves against SLAPPs action. She stated the use of lawsuits and legal threats meant some journalists and publishers were becoming increasingly risk averse to publishing content, in fear of being subjected to lengthy legal processes.

The opportunity costs for individuals and organisations defending themselves against SLAPPs cases are great. Focusing on legal matters means time that would otherwise have been used to follow up on stories in the public interest cannot be pursed.

Journalists Per Agerman and Annelie Östlund from Swedish news site Realtid were welcomed by the NUJ’s ethics council chair, Professor Chris Frost. Sharing their personal experience of action brought by Swedish businessman Svante Kumlin who filed a lawsuit in London, they spoke of the financial and emotional burden caused by litigation.Both journalists firm in their belief that their reporting was in the public interest, chose to proceed with publication despite receiving letters from a UK law firm designed to deter them from doing so. 

Per said:

“If you have to live with these threats every day you can’t do your work. It gets into the core of being a journalist…we felt as though we had to do it.”

Commenting on the suit filed for £13m by Kumlin, Annelie said:

“We objected on several grounds, among them that London is not the right place for this process. We are Swedish journalists writing in Sweden under Swedish law."

On 11 May, a judgement handed down by Mr Justice Knowles dismissed the majority of the suit filed by Kumlin, with the remainder allowed to proceed in UK courts.  

It states:

“I have concluded on balance that the Claimant does not have a good arguable case that England and Wales is his centre of interests.”

Susan shared findings from a global survey by the FPC of 63 investigative journalists working in 41 countries, highlighting that legal threats were most challenging to manage. Journalists taking part stated the UK was the international leading source of these threats.  

Peter Geoghegan, openDemocracy editor-in-chief, recognised the growing  impact SLAPPs had on freelance journalists. Lawsuits naming individuals without their publishers was often deliberate action taken to intimidate journalists and stymie future reporting. Peter emphasised there were many SLAPPs cases that didn’t gain media attention or enter the public domain. 

In 2021, openDemocracy published an article about being sued alongside Peter by Jeffrey Donaldson in Ireland. After writing about the case, openDemocracy’s legal insurance increased threefold. Despite never presenting at court, the legal bills, internal resources and time spent defending the case was significant. Data protection and privacy laws are also being increasingly used in SLAPPs cases. 

Peter said:

“I think the recent Bloomberg Supreme court ruling is very worrying for press freedom. It makes people like us doing our job even harder.”

 In March, the Ministry of Justice announced a call for evidence on the use of SLAPPs in England and Wales. On 10 May, Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary gave evidence to the justice committee, explaining the threat to media freedom through the use of these lawsuits. 

Chris Frost urged members to submit a response to government’s evidence call closing on 19 May. Read our guidance for NUJ members.

Read ‘London Calling’ - The issue of legal intimidation and SLAPPs against media emanating from the United Kingdom.

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