Female journalists are very often the ones fighting against SLAPP and London-based “reputation laundering” law firms working for wealthy individuals who want to suppress public interest journalism.
This was one of the messages during an online panel on Friday organised by Open Democracy and featuring Rebecca Vincent from Reporters Without Borders, Clare Rewcastle Brown from the Sarawak Report, Susan Coughtrie from The Foreign Policy Centre, and Peter Geoghegan from Open Democracy.
Maltese newsrooms have been hit by a number of SLAPP threats from London law firms, including from SOCAR representative on the Electrogas deal, Turab Musayev.
Entitled, “Is the UK’s reputation management industry destroying journalism?” the panellists discussed the issue of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), particularly those initiated in the UK, and legal threats sent from big-name London law firms. It also touched on how reputation management firms use threats and blackmail to lessen bad press around their clients.
The panellists agreed that “reputation laundering” was a good way to describe this industry that allows wealthy individuals to weaponise the law to silence, intimidate, and threaten investigative and public interest journalism as well as activists.
Coughtrie explained that the issue of SLAPPs really came to light after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, as she had more than 47 open libel cases against her at the time. Filed mainly by politicians and the subjects of her investigations, the sheer number of suits shed light on this threat used against journalists investigating corruption.
“These suits are used not to resolve a grievance but to suppress information through legal intimidation. The people filing them have vast resources and wealth and instructor lawyers, PR companies, and reputation management agencies to hound journalists with threats,” she explained.
Vincent explained that these threats could greatly impact the overall press climate in a country.
“We saw a situation in Malta where the independent media were systematically silenced on an issue – that of Pilatus Bank. But Daphne Caruana Galizia refused to be silenced, and she became isolated.”
She explained that after being isolated, journalists are intentionally pursued and singled out in a way that leaves them at a higher risk. These legal attacks are often combined with other threats like online harassment and threats of violence.
Often, independent and individual journalists are left to fight these battles alone, and more often than not, they are women, Vincent said.
The Shift got a mention for the way that editor and founder Caroline Muscat deals with legal threats and letters from big, London law firms, otherwise referred to as “reputation launderers,” during the panel.
Vincent said, “we work closely with The Shift, and Caroline Muscat has published every single threatening letter she’s had. To date, none of them have followed through with a suit.”
Coughtrie added that this kind of reaction is important because “when you speak about it, you create a space for others to speak out about it as well.”
In terms of the big law firms using legal intimidation tactics against journalists, Vincent said it’s important to name and shame them.
“Mischon de Reya, Schillings, Carter-Ruck, there isn’t enough naming and shaming going on. You can really see the impact in places like Malta,” she said.
The panel discussed the fact that the UK’s reputation as a “prime jurisdiction for illicit flows of dirty money” could mean that these vexatious lawsuits are often funded with money gained through corruption or crime. Furthermore, London is increasingly being used as a location for SLAPP actions because the British legal system is such that a threat from there is more intimidating than many other jurisdictions.
Rewcastle Brown from the Sarawak Report explained how she had had so many SLAPP threats that her children’s faces go white when an official letter arrives at her home.
“We’ve had a lot of trauma from these attacks on our very wellbeing. I lost my pension over a case that was never going to come to judgment. There is nothing more visceral than the threat of losing the house over your children’s head.”
She added, “these guys are vicious; they write ‘Private and Confidential’ on an unsolicited letter than abuse you for 10 pages. They are in the game of blackmail. I have had my lawyers remind them a few times that it’s blackmail and their privilege doesn’t extend to crime.”
“That’s how bad these law firms are and how badly they behave. We have to stand up to it,” she added.
In June, a debate in the British parliament highlighted the concerning trend of UK courts being abused to kill uncomfortable stories. MPs noted that SLAPPs were being filed from the UK with impunity 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.”
Mischon de Reya had previously threatened Caruana Galizia with a SLAPP from passport concessionaire Henley and Partners. Her family has since called out the firm for harassing, intimidating, and trying to cripple her financially.
Pilatus Bank also used the UK as a jurisdiction to threaten legal action against Maltese media houses. Henley and Partners were among several 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.
Open Democracy’s Geoghegan noted that the British legal sector needs to “take a good look at their profession and clean up their house… They are reputation concierges; it’s absolutely disgusting,” he added.