On Tuesday 25 March 2023, Dr Francesca Farrington represented The Anti-SLAPP Research Hub at an expert seminar on legal and economic threats to the safety of journalists organised by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). She was accompanied by Anti-SLAPP Hub Member Ms. Magdalena Zabrocka who provided interventions from the floor.
The seminar brought together experts working on media freedom after the Human Rights Council resolution 51/9 on “The safety of journalists” (2022) expressed concern about the deepening threats to media diversity and independence. In particular, the Human Rights Council noted that the rise of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) presented a growing threat to media freedom. SLAPPs are lawsuits that engage abusive litigation tactics to suppress information on matters of public interest.
The Anti-SLAPP Research Hub has been working at the national, European and international level to research SLAPPs and Anti-SLAPP legislation. The work of the Hub has been pioneered by Prof. Justin Borg-Barthet after the assassination of the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia led to calls for action across Europe. Daphne had been reporting on a global network of corruption and at the time of her murder she had over 40 civil and 5 criminal actions pending against her in both Malta and abroad.
The Hub’s submission emphasised that SLAPPs “present a threat to media freedom, the rule of law and democracy by reframing public debate as a matter of private dispute.” The Hub reiterated that SLAPPs use the judicial process for purposes other than genuinely asserting, vindicating or exercising a right, and aim to produce a broader chilling effect on free speech. The Hub called on member states to enact amendments to their procedural laws, private international law rules, and to empower regulatory bodies to discipline legal professionals who facilitate SLAPPs. On the latter point Dr Farrington stated that:
“[W]e need to confront the fact that legal threats that manifest in a court hearing are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are communications that threaten legal action and are, in and of themselves, often sufficient to coerce the removal of information.
The Hub drew member state’s attention to the work conducted by the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) – of which the Hub is an active member – and the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition. CASE and the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition have drafted model legislation that may be used as a template for any state wishing to tackle this pressing legal issue. Model draft legislation provides for: early dismissal of unfounded proceedings through an accelerated order, protective costs orders and costs awards to the defender, remedies and penalties against abusive court proceedings, and defensive mechanisms to deter the institution of SLAPPs abroad. The Hub has been advocating for Scottish Anti-SLAPP legislation following Roger Mullin’s call to reform the law relating to SLAPPs.
The Hub concluded that:
“[W]e need the political will to act, we need to support countries in maintaining and strengthening the rule of law, we need procedural mechanisms that protect journalists legal rights and interests – recognising their role as public watchdogs – we need sanctions for those who abuse those rights, and we need education on the threat and the remedies to those threats.”
A full recording of the morning seminar, including submissions made by Dr Farrington alongside interventions from the floor by Hub member Ms. Magdalena Zabrocka are available at: https://media.un.org/en/asset/k18/k18khr9kok
A video recording of the afternoon session is available at:
*Image from left to right: Flora Schulte Nordholt (Free Press Unlimited), Francesca Farrington (Anti-SLAPP Research Hub), Magdalena Zabrocka (Anti-SLAPP Research Hub), Flutura Kusari (European Centre for Press and Media Freedom), and Galina Arapova (Mass Media Defence Centre).