UK-based non-profit organisation Index on Censorship will be launching a new research project later this month that will expose the extent to which individuals with wealth and influence use “vexatious” legal threats to shut down investigations into their practices.
Despite recent changes to UK law “more needs to be done both in Britain and abroad to tackle spurious lawsuits,” the organisation said.
Chief Executive Jodie Ginsberg said that UK law firms were among the most heavily involved in legal threats to journalists outside the UK. “We are still seeing people and organisations with almost no UK links bringing expensive and spurious defamation cases,” she said.
The organisation also mentioned murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia as an example of a journalist receiving such threats. Caruana Galizia “had numerous lawsuits pending at the time of her murder, with some of the lawsuits brought by UK firms,” they said.
Shortly before her death, Caruana Galizia had received letters from the London office of the firm Mishcon de Reya asking for some of her blog posts to be deleted. Caruana Galizia’s sons had accused Mishcon of seeking to “cripple” the journalist financially. According to British media reports, Mischon “specialises in bringing defamation cases” and had been hired “to defend the reputation of a client doing business in Malta.”
“Such suits are a particular problem for independent media outlets and other small organisations. They are financially draining and can take years to process. Faced with the threat of a lengthy litigation battle and expensive legal fees, many who receive such threats are simply forced into silence,” the organisation said.
“News outlets find themselves receiving a letter threatening expensive proceedings unless online articles are rewritten or removed altogether, and demanding an agreement not to publish anything similar in the future. The letters often tell the recipient that they cannot even report the fact that they have received the letter,” Ginsberg said.
The Shift has also been threatened with SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suits twice – one by a Russian banker and another by Henley & Partners, Malta’s concessionaire for the cash for passports scheme. The same firm also targeted Daphne Caruana Galizia prior to her assassination. In both cases, The Shift did not back down.
Meanwhile, the Maltese government has refused to ban the use of SLAPP suits in Malta.
The research project aims to interview journalists and media organisations across Europe about the extent of these threats and a final report containing recommendations for action will then be drawn up later in the year.