The UK is being used as a jurisdiction to take out SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) with impunity and to kill uncomfortable stories, UK MPs said in parliament last week.
The debate, focusing on the safety of journalists not just in the UK but also further afield, raised a number of issues facing media workers including vexatious lawsuits, violence, arbitrary detention, lack of access to information, and harassment.
Labour MP Alex Sobel spoke at length about SLAPPs and how they are used to shut down stories and silence the journalist named in the suit.
“Strategic lawsuits against public participation are taken out with impunity both in the UK and elsewhere…the goal is not necessarily to win in court but, rather, to silence the target. Powerful interests wanting to shut down stories can do so by taking legal action that they know will cost the defendant huge sums of money in legal fees and potentially take years to resolve.”
He added that not only do they “kill an uncomfortable story” but they silence other critical voices through the creation of a “culture of fear and silence.”
Yesterday, on the Safety of Journalists debate @JWhittingdale presented data from the JFJ's statement in support of arrested media workers. In particular, he stressed the case of Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich: https://t.co/AL6W099PMf
— Justice for Journalists Foundation (@JFJfund) June 11, 2021
Various SLAPP suits have been filed or threatened from the UK to journalists in Malta.
Daphne Caruana Galizia was threatened with SLAPPs from cash-for-passports concessionaire Henley and Partners. Mischon de Reya, a well-known law firm was accused by her family of harassment, intimidation, and attempts to financially cripple her by the threat of UK legal action.
Pilatus Bank also used the UK as a jurisdiction to threaten legal action against Maltese media houses. Henley and Partners was among a number of companies and individuals to threaten The Shift with a SLAPP.
Russian banker Ruben Vardanyan also threatened The Shift with a SLAPP via a UK law following the publication of allegations he was linked to a huge money laundering scheme called the Troika Laundromat.
Conservative MP Damian Collins agreed that the UK was being used to file SLAPPs and that such lawsuits are principally designed to “tie down a journalist in potentially expensive litigation for years and to dissuade others from seeking to criticise or investigate powerful people.”
John Whittingdale, the Minister for Media and Data noted that the government has made some changes to the law so that it’s harder to file such suits in the UK, but he admitted that it was something that requires monitoring.
MPs also discussed the hijacking of a RyanAir flight and the arrest of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
John Nicolson from the Scottish National Party spoke out in support of Protasevich, saying that dictators such as Alexander Lukashenko hate journalists and journalism.
“Journalism at its finest speaks truth to power. That is why tyrants the world over hate both what they say but also what they represent.”
He accused “evil dictator” Lukashenko of using “kidnap, rape, and murder” to silence the people of Belarus including journalists.
Sobel added that Protasevich’s only crime was “telling the truth about the brutal regime of his country, Belarus”.
The situation in Israel and Palestine including the bombing of several media offices in Gaza was also condemned by several MPs.
“Recently, we saw the Israeli air force deliberately targeting and destroying media facilities in Gaza, including two tower blocks that were home to numerous Palestinian and international news agencies, and causing the death of a Palestinian journalist Yousef Abu Hussein when they bombed his home,” said Brendan O’Hara from the SNP.
He called on the House to condemn the attacks and insist Israel abides by its international obligations to protect media professionals.
Whittingdale also tabled a number of statistics relating to risks faced by journalists. He referred to statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists that showed that at least 1,404 journalists have been killed since 1992.
He paid tribute to their courage and to those who are still working in extremely dangerous environments.
In terms of imprisoned journalists, he referenced Justice for Journalists who recorded a total of 84 journalists imprisoned in former Soviet Union countries.
Again, the case of Protasevich was highlighted, noting that there was “significant concern about his future wellbeing.”
Since Protasevich’s arrest, a well-coordinated smear campaign has been propagated online. Countless posts and pages have appeared, linking him to dissident Neo-Nazi groups. They were initially published in Russian but have since been disseminated in dozens of languages.
He has been accused of fighting alongside neo-Nazis in Ukraine and appearing next to men doing Nazi salutes and wearing SS insignias.The claims have been dismissed by Euvsdisinfo.eu, a European Union site set up to counter the Russian disinformation.