Press freedom campaigners call for action on ‘vexatious lawsuits’

Scottish PEN joined press freedom organisations calling for protections against the abuse of defamation law to silence journalism and public scrutiny.

December 4, 2019

In July 2019, Scottish PEN co-signed a letter calling for the UK Government to bring forward new legislation to protect against defamation law being abused to silence criticism. This came from the ongoing defamation threats brought against the murdered Maltese journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia and her family, alongside the defamation action brought against journalist, Carole Cadwalladr by Arron Banks for her investigative work.

Here is the letter, sent to Jeremy Hunt MP (the former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) and Jeremy Wright MP (the former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) and published in The Observer here.

On 4th December 2019, the defamation action against Carole Cadwalladr commences at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

Dear Secretaries of State,

Following the recent global conference on media freedom held in London by the UK government, we write to draw your attention to what appears to be a growing trend to use strategic litigation against public participation (“SLAPP”) lawsuits as a means of intimidating and silencing journalists working in the public interest.

Such legal threats are designed to inhibit ongoing investigations, and prevent legitimate public interest reporting. Abuse of defamation law, including through SLAPP lawsuits, has become a serious threat to press freedom and advocacy rights in a number of countries, including the UK.

Fears have been expressed in the UK and abroad, and by the European Parliament that this legal tactic was being deployed against the murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who at the time of her death in October 2017 was subject to 42 civil libel suits against her, many of which were brought through UK based law firms, acting for foreign banks and wealthy individuals. Twenty-seven of these vexatious lawsuits remain open more than 21 months after her assassination. A range of other Maltese media have faced threats of similar suits, including investigative outlet, The Shift News.

Numerous legal and online threats have been made against Carole Cadwalladr, whose journalism for the Observer and a range of other publications has stimulated a global debate about the power of online platforms to influence the behaviour of citizens, and raised important questions about the regulation of digital technology. 

The legal claim against Ms Cadwalladr, issued on 12 July by lawyers acting for Arron Banks, is another example of a wealthy individual appearing to abuse the law in an attempt to silence a journalist and distract from these issues being discussed by politicians, the media and the public at a critical time in the life of our democracy.

The increasing deployment of what appear to be SLAPP lawsuits in the UK poses a threat to media freedom and public interest advocacy, and demands a robust response. We believe that new legislation should be considered to prevent the abuse of defamation law to silence public interest investigative reporting. We also urge you to take a clear public stance condemning such practices and supporting investigative journalism and independent media.

The increasing deployment of what appear to be SLAPP lawsuits in the UK poses a threat to media freedom and public interest advocacy, and demands a robust response.

We urge you to address this issue as a matter of priority. Action has been discussed within the institutions of the European Union, but it is important that the government makes clear that the UK remains a country that welcomes and celebrates the role and value of independent public interest reporting.

Given the importance of this issue, we would welcome a meeting with you to discuss this matter further.

Sincerely yours,

Paul Webster, Editor, The Observer

Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director, Reporters Without Borders

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO, Index on Censorship

John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace UK

Thomas Hughes, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19

Carles Torner, Executive Director, PEN International

Carl MacDougall, President, Scottish PEN

Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs, PEN America

Tom Gibson, EU Representative, Committee to Protect Journalists

Flutura Kusari, Legal Advisor, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom

Scott Griffen, Deputy Director, International Press Institute

Caroline Muscat, Co-founder and Editor, The Shift News

Dr Justin Borg-Barthet, Senior Lecturer, University of Aberdeen School of Law

Matthew Caruana Galizia, Director, Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

Andrew Caruana Galizia

Paul Caruana Galizia, Finance Editor, Tortoise

Corinne Vella, sister of Daphne Caruana Galizia