Urgent reforms needed to protect journalists from vexatious legal threats: Index on Censorship
03 Jan 2020

The UK should make it harder for powerful individuals and companies to bring libel actions or use other vexatious legal threats designed to stifle investigative journalism, Index on Censorship said on Friday.

Launching a new project that aims to expose the extent to which those with wealth and influence use legal threats to shut down investigations into their practices, Index said that – despite recent changes to UK law – more needs to be done both in Britain and abroad to tackle spurious lawsuits.

“Defamation law was reformed in 2013 to make it harder for people who had little or no connection to the UK to bring lawsuits here,” said Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg. “However, we are still seeing people and organisations with almost no UK links bringing expensive and spurious defamation cases. In addition, increasingly people are turning to privacy and data protection laws in an attempt to prevent journalists reporting on corrupt, illegal or poor practice.”

Ginsberg said UK law firms were also among the most heavily involved in legal threats to journalists outside the UK. “This needs to stop,” she said.

Later this month, the UK courts will hear the case of Paul Radu, investigative journalist and founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Radu, a Romanian citizen, is being sued by Azerbaijani MP Javanshir Feyziyev, who was named in an award-winning OCCRP report exposing money-laundering. Feyziyev is a sitting MP in Azerbaijan, though says he lives in London, and most of the readers of the stories about Azerbaijan are not from the UK.

Index on Censorship, which campaigns on freedom of expression issues globally and publishes Index on Censorship magazine, has become increasingly worried about the growing use of vexatious lawsuits since it first launched a project monitoring threats to media freedom in Europe in 2013. 

“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,” said Ginsberg.

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.

Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist who was assassinated in October 2017, had numerous lawsuits pending at the time of her murder, with some of the lawsuits brought by UK firms. 

Index will launch its research project into the use of vexatious legal threats against journalists later this month and aims to interview journalists and media organisations across Europe about the extent of these threats before a final report containing recommendations for action later in the year. 

For more information please contact: Jodie Ginsberg

[email protected]

About Index on Censorship

Index on Censorship is a London-based non-profit organisation that publishes work by censored writers and artists and campaigns against censorship worldwide. Since its founding in 1972, Index on Censorship has published some of the greatest names in literature in its award-winning quarterly magazine, including Samuel Beckett, Nadine Gordimer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arthur Miller and Kurt Vonnegut. It also has published some of the world’s best campaigning writers from Vaclav Havel to Elif Shafak.

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