On the second day of the anti-SLAPP conference organised by Justice for Journalists Foundation and the Foreign Policy Centre, panellists spoke of how corporate lawyers, particularly in the UK, used various tactics to kill stories before they are even out using threatening legal letters.
One of the main panel discussions on Tuesday morning was hosted by Oliver Bullough, who authored ‘Moneyland’ and works as a journalist. The panellists included Maltese blogger Manuel Delia, Franz Wild, finance editor for the Bureau of Investigative Journalists, Cherese Thakur, advocacy coordinator for amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism and Nicola Solomon, the chief executive of the Society of Authors.
The panel discussion, titled ‘not for publication’, centred on the tactics used by high-profile corporate lawyers, including the dishing out of legal letters carrying the eponymous ‘not for publication’ label, many of which are often lengthy and attempt to discredit the journalists or their sources while failing to answer key questions.
Recounting an experience from his time working as a journalist for Bloomberg, Wild spoke of how an article he’d written about a wealthy mineral assets businessman who, according to the US government, had paid over $100 million in bribes paid to Congolese officials to acquire the assets.
“When we got to the point of asking him about it, we got a very long letter marked private, confidential and not for publication from their lawyers,” Wild said, describing how the back-and-forth between separate legal teams went on for a year before the story was finally published.
“There was no attempt to answer any of the questions, which were very straight-laced questions with no room for innuendo or supposition, it’s very much fact-based. This letter was basically all about alleging that we’re out to get him, we’re not interested in the truth and that we had a vendetta,” he added.
Recounting similar experiences, Thakur, who is based in South Africa, spoke of how her small investigative team of 12 people had a much rougher time handling SLAPP suits than Wild did when he was working for the extremely well-resourced Bloomberg group.
“We are a non-profit investigative journalism unit based in South Africa, and we have no ties to the UK, no offices, no employees, we don’t investigate UK-based stories,” Thakur said, describing their work on corporate wrongdoing, corruption and malfeasance in government.
“We were provided with leaked financial records about a group of companies that formed part of the FINCEN files, which concerned the group and its founder. Barclays Bank had submitted a suspicious activities report on the group in 2015,” she explained, discussing the story’s point of origin.
“So our journalist sent questions to the founder, setting out allegations, requesting comment. What we got as a response was very unexpected: instead of answering the question, we got a letter from a UK-based law firm stating that our journalist was part of a conspiracy to discredit the group and its founder, demanding we account for how we came about the information,” Thakur continued.
Delia echoed similar sentiments, saying he was threatened with multiple SLAPP suits in his capacity as an individual, referring in particular to a story involving a bank that was later shuttered and explaining that he felt compelled to drop the story when threatened. He described also, how he, along with co-authors Carlo Bonini and John Sweeney, faced similar litigation when publishing ‘Murder on the Malta Express’.
In the penultimate panel of the day, ‘SLAPPed, what next? The impact of legal challenges on individuals and society, and steps to counter them’ Matthew Caruana Galizia spoke about the impact frivolous lawsuits had on his mother, Daphne.
Noting that she was fighting almost 50 lawsuits at the time of her assassination, he said she spent “tens of thousands of euros” before some of these suits even saw the inside of a courtroom.
“We ignored some of the cases against my mother as we knew the plaintiff didn’t really want to go to court; they just wanted to threaten us into submission,” he said.
He also mentioned the case of Pilatus Bank, where Maltese portals published information on how it was being “used by organised criminal groups made up of high-level politicians to launder money” and how the stories started disappearing off the internet. Caruana Galizia said some newsrooms refused to say why, while others “nervously passed us on the legal threats they received.”
The Shift was the only local portal that did not bend to the threat of SLAPP and kept the stories running.
Caruana Galizia said he understands why some portals did delete the stories but added it is not the solution.
“It is not the solution because they are of significant public interest, and very often proven right when the person making the threats is arrested.”
He said it was important to note that while EU action on cross-border SLAPPs is welcome, we must not forget that many are filed nationally.
“While cross-border might be more damaging, the majority are national. This was true for my mother, and it is important that we are reminded of this,” he said.
Also taking part in the panel was Martin Bright, the acting editor of Index on Censorship. He spoke of his own struggles against Carter-Ruck over the case of Nadhmi Auchi, who was convicted of fraud in France.
Bright explained that Carter-Ruck “created a prototype for the SLAPP”. He said their campaign against him and other media to remove stories mentioning Auchi was successful as you cannot find much reference to them online anymore. Furthermore, Bright lost his job and faced financial ruin until Auchi and Carter-Ruck dropped the case.
He also said that some media need to “show some mettle” and not take articles down and fight back against those making the threats.
Flutura Kusari from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom spoke again at this afternoons event. She was visibly emotional and choked back tears as she spoke of how hard it was to hear of SLAPP’s personal impact on people.
“SLAPP destroys lives,” she said.
Also participating in the panel was investigative reporter at Buzzfeed News Katie Baker, and it was moderated by Rebecca Vincent, the Director of International Campaigns and UK Bureau Director at Reporters Without Borders.