Index relies entirely on the support of donors and readers to do its work.
Help us keep amplifying censored voices today.
29 November 2022
To the Rt. Hon. Dominic Raab MP
Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
Copies sent to:
Rt. Hon. Dominic Raab, Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
Rt. Hon. Rishi Sunak MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Rt. Hon. Michelle Donelan MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Rt. Hon. James Cleverly MP, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs
Mr. Steve Reed MP, Shadow Labour Secretary of State for Justice
Rt. Hon. Alistair Carmichael MP, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Home Affairs, Justice and Northern Ireland
Ms. Anne McLaughlin MP, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice)
Mr. John Penrose MP, UK Government Anti Corruption Champion
Mr. Paul Philip, Chief Executive, Solicitors Regulation Authority
Mr. Mark Neale, Director-General, The Bar Standards Board
Ms. Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
Ms. Teresa Ribeiro, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Representative on Freedom of the Media
Ms. Irene Khan, United Nations Special Rapporteur on on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
Re: Adoption of a UK Anti-SLAPP Law
As a group of leading editors, journalists, publishers, lawyers and other experts, we are writing to express our support for the Model UK Anti-SLAPP Law launched this November by the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition – and to urge you to move swiftly to enshrine these proposals in law.
Events over the past year have shone a light on the use of abusive lawsuits and legal threats to shut down public interest speech. This is a problem that has long been endemic in newsrooms, publishing houses, and civil society organisations. In an age of increasing financial vulnerability in the news industry, it is all too easy for such abusive legal tactics to shut down investigations and block accountability.
We welcome your commitment to bring in reforms to address Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), as you said on 20 July 2022, in order to “uphold freedom of speech, end the abuse of our justice system, and defend those who bravely shine a light on corruption.” High-profile cases – such as those targeting Catherine Belton, Tom Burgis, Elliot Higgins, and more recently openDemocracy and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism – are just the most visible manifestation of a much broader problem which has affected newspapers across Fleet Street and the wider UK media industry for many years.
The public interest reporting targeted by SLAPPs is vital for the health of democratic societies, including law enforcement’s ability to investigate wrongdoing promptly and effectively. This is of acute importance in the UK, which journalistic investigations have repeatedly shown to be a hub for illicit finance from kleptocratic elites. As of April 2022, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has estimated the scale of money laundering impacting the UK is in excess of £100bn a year.
Journalism has a huge role to play in tackling this problem. For example, investigations by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) into the ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’ scandal supported the NCA in seizing millions in corrupt funds from a number of individuals, including £5.6 million from members of one Azerbaijani MP’s family. Prior to the NCA’s seizure, the same MP had spent two years pursuing Paul Radu, co-founder of OCCRP through London’s libel courts. The inequality of arms in such cases is clear. As Radu notes: “The people suing journalists in the UK rely on these huge legal bills being so intimidating that the journalists won’t even try to defend themselves.”
In March 2022, at the launch of the Government consultation on SLAPPs, you stressed that “The Government will not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their wrongdoing.” The findings of the consultation, published in July, clearly stated that “the type of activity identified as SLAPPs and the aim of preventing exposure of matters that are in the public interest go beyond the parameters of ordinary litigation and pose a threat to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.”
Fortunately, there is an oven-ready solution to this problem. The Model Anti-SLAPP Law, drafted by the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition in consultation with leading media lawyers and industry experts, would provide robust protection against SLAPPs, building on the framework proposed by the Ministry of Justice in July. Key features include:
The need could not be more urgent. Research by the Foreign Policy Centre and other members of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition has found that SLAPPs are on the rise and that the UK is the number one originator of abusive legal actions. In fact, the UK has been identified as the leading source of SLAPPs, almost as frequent a source as all European Union countries and the United States combined.
The EU has already taken steps, with a proposed Anti-SLAPP Directive announced in April. In the US, 34 US states already have anti-SLAPPs laws in place, and this year Congress has introduced the first federal SLAPP Protection Act. Moreover, the US has also launched the Defamation Defense Fund, recognising the impact SLAPP actions have on journalists, as they “are designed to deter them from doing their work.”
You have made clear your commitment to strengthening legal protections against these legal tactics. It is crucial momentum is not lost. We encourage you to put forward, in the earliest possible time frame, legislation in line with the model UK Anti-SLAPP Law, to ensure that the UK can keep pace and contribute to this global movement to protect against SLAPPs.
John Witherow, Chairman, Times Media
Emma Tucker, Editor, The Sunday Times
Tony Gallagher, Editor, The Times
Victoria Newton, Editor-in-Chief, The Sun
Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief, DMG media
Ted Verity, Editor, The Daily Mail
Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief, The Guardian
Paul Webster, Editor, The Observer
Alison Phillips, Editor, The Mirror
Oliver Duff, Editor-in-Chief, i
Roula Khalaf, Editor, The Financial Times
Chris Evans, Editor, The Telegraph
Alan Rusbridger, Editor, Prospect Magazine
Ian Hislop, Editor, Private Eye
Zanny Minton Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief, The Economist
Alessandra Galloni, Editor-in-Chief, Reuters News Agency
John Micklethwait, Editor-in-Chief, Bloomberg
Drew Sullivan, Co-founder and Publisher, Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)
Paul Radu, Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, OCCRP
Rozina Breen, CEO, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ)
Peter Geoghegan, Editor-in-Chief and CEO, openDemocracy
Nick Mathiason, Co-founder and Co-director, Finance Uncovered
Gerard Ryle, Director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)
David Kaplan, Executive Director, Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN)
Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists (NUJ)
Dawn Alford, Executive Director, Society of Editors
Sayra Tekin, Director of Legal, News Media Association (NMA)
Sarah Baxter, Director, Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting
Paul Murphy, Head of Investigations, Financial Times
Rachel Oldroyd, Deputy Investigations Editor, The Guardian
Carole Cadwalladr, journalist, The Observer
Catherine Belton, journalist and author of the book, Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the west
Tom Burgis, reporter and author of the book, Kleptopia: How dirty money is conquering the world
Oliver Bullough, Journalist and author
Clare Rewcastle Brown, investigative journalist and founder of The Sarawak Report
Richard Brooks, journalist, Private Eye
Matthew Caruana Galizia, Director of The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
Mark Stephens CBE, Partner at Howard Kennedy LLP
Caroline Kean, Consultant Partner, Wiggin
Matthew Jury, Managing Partner, McCue Jury and Partners
David Price KC
Rupert Cowper-Coles, Partner at RPC
Conor McCarthy, Barrister, Monckton Chambers
Pia Sarma, Editorial Legal Director, Times Newspapers Ltd
Gill Phillips, Director of Editorial Legal Services, Guardian News & Media
Lisa Webb, Senior Lawyer, Which?
Juliette Garside, Deputy Business Editor, The Guardian and The Observer
Alexander Papachristou, Executive Director of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice
José Borghino, Secretary General, International Publishers Association
Dan Conway, CEO, Publishers Association
Arabella Pike, Publishing Director, HarperCollins Publishers
Joanna Prior, CEO of Macmillan Publishers International Limited
Meirion Jones, Editor, TBIJ
Emily Wilson, Bureau Local Editor, TBIJ
James Ball, Global Editor, TBIJ
Franz Wild, Enablers Editor, TBIJ
James Lee, Chair of the Board, TBIJ
Stewart Kirkpatrick, Head of Impact, openDemocracy
Moira Sleight, Editor, the Methodist Recorder
Paul Caruana Galizia, reporter, Tortoise
Tom Bergin, journalist and author
James Nixey, Director, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House
Edward Lucas, Author, European and transatlantic security consultant and fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
Sean O’Neill, Senior Writer, The Times
Dr Peter Coe, Associate Professor in Law, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham
Alex Wilson, Partner at RPC
George Greenwood, Investigations Reporter, The Times
Simon Bowers, Investigations Editor, Finance Uncovered
John Heathershaw, Professor of International Relations, University of Exeter
Tena Prelec, Research Fellow, DPIR, University of Oxford
Thomas Mayne, Research Fellow, DPIR, University of Oxford
Jodie Ginsberg, President, Committee to Protect Journalists
Dr Julie Macfarlane, Co-Founder, Can’t Buy My Silence campaign to ban the misuse of NDAs
Zelda Perkins, Co-Founder, Can’t Buy My Silence campaign to ban the misuse of NDAs
The co-chairs of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition welcome today’s announcement that the government intends to introduce a package of legislative measures aimed at putting an end to strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) in the UK.
Noting that many of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition’s recommendations are reflected in the proposals, the co-chairs commend the government for clearly stating its intention to introduce primary legislation to address this issue. They are pleased to see it is a recognised priority to filter SLAPPs out of the court process as quickly as possible, regardless of the law weaponised by the SLAPP litigant.
At the same time, the co-chairs urge the government to be bolder in the measures aimed at tackling SLAPPs. In particular they point to the need for a higher threshold to filter out SLAPPs, the need to reduce and compensate SLAPP targets for the harm caused by the litigation process, and the need for measures – such as punitive damages – to deter SLAPP litigants from targeting public watchdogs with abusive legal threats and actions.
Charlie Holt, UK Campaigns Manager at English PEN, said: “The government’s proposals provide a solid foundation for tackling the problem of SLAPPs. With this framework in place, the Government must now ensure its proposed law is sufficiently ambitious to decisively tackle the problem of SLAPPs. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect public public watchdogs from abusive lawsuits – it’s crucial the government’s measures do not fall short of what is needed”
Susan Coughtrie, Project Director at the Foreign Policy Centre said: “Thankfully it is clearly no longer a question as to whether SLAPPs are a problem in the UK, but what measures will most effectively address them. We are highly encouraged to see the government’s proposals, which reflect many of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition’s recommendations. How quickly these reforms will be implemented and their effectiveness in remedying the UK’s SLAPPs problem will be a key part of our continued focus on this issue.”
Jessica Ní Mhainín, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Index on Censorship said: “We welcome the government’s intention to take action against SLAPPs and we look forward to working with officials to ensure that the strongest possible measures are adopted to ensure that public watchdogs are no longer subject to legal intimidation.”
Notes to Editors:
Today, the UK Government presented its new Bill of Rights before Parliament, claiming that it will “restore a proper balance between the rights of individuals, personal responsibility and the wider public interest”. In reality, the new Bill will undermine the universality of all human rights and weaken the ability of courts to give effect to protection of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression. It will expand state power and hamper efforts to hold the Government to account, joining other legislative measures – such as the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 – that have reduced the ability to challenge government overreach.
The Bill is set to replace the Human Rights Act, which has protected human rights and the freedom of expression of people living in the UK for over twenty years.
The Government claims that replacing the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights will strengthen freedom of expression. As human rights organisations that promote and defend the right to freedom of expression worldwide, we unequivocally reject this false narrative. Freedom of expression is too important to be used as cover for weakening the protection of human rights. On the contrary, as detailed in our joint consultation response, the Human Rights Act has bolstered free expression in the UK in a number of areas: strengthened defamation law; enhanced protection of journalistic sources and material; strengthened protection of the right to protest; and restricted perception-based recording of non-crime incidents, among other things.
ARTICLE 19, Index on Censorship and English PEN believe that if the Government is serious about its purported goal to strengthen freedom of expression in the UK, it should instead focus its attention on reforming a number of problematic laws and legislative proposals it has brought forward, including the National Security Bill, the Online Safety Bill, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, the Public Order Bill, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.
We urge the Government to abandon any proposal that would replace or weaken the Human Rights Act in any way. Moreover, it must follow the normal procedures for introducing new law – particularly a bill that could have such sweeping repercussions – and allow for proper, thorough democratic scrutiny of the bill. Rushing through such legislation could put the protection of human rights of the people in the UK at risk and fail to offer the levels of protection to which they are entitled, and which the Human Rights Act has already enshrined in law. One of the justifications for the Bill of Rights is to give greater weight to the views of elected lawmakers. By reducing the opportunity for these same lawmakers to scrutinise the Bill, it demonstrates the hollow commitment to democracy and the rule of law that underpins this Bill.
In the letter to Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, this month, our organisations were among a coalition of 150 organisations from across civil society that called on the Government to provide pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposed Bill of Rights. We warned that the proposal to repeal and replace the Human Rights Act would be a significant constitutional reform, which requires careful and robust consideration. The rights of individuals could be compromised if such a process was hurried.
As Richard Ratcliffe enters day 16 of a hunger strike to protest against UK government inaction in the case of the continuing detention of his wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran, he says it is not the lack of food that is his biggest worry.
“It is the cold,” he says from his makeshift tent village outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall, just a short walk from the Houses of Parliament. Last Friday – Guy Fawkes Night – the mercury dipped to below freezing as a candlelit vigil was held to raise awareness of this wife’s plight, who has been detained in Iran for more than five years.
Nazanin, who was working for the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the time of her arrest, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 for “plotting to topple the Iranian regime”. As the end of her sentence approached, Nazanin was told she faced new charges of “propaganda activities against the government”. In April 2021, she was sentenced to a further year in prison. I spoke to Richard at the time in our podcast.
It is clear that Nazanin is clearly a pawn in a game of one-upmanship between the British and Iranian governments. There is no guarantee that she will be released even after serving the new sentence.
This is why Ratcliffe is carrying out his protest – to make the British government recognise that its strategy towards Iran has failed.
With his quilted jacket and woolly hat and mittens, Ratcliffe looks like many of the nearby rough sleepers. Yet few of those on nearby Whitehall are surrounded by pebbles painted by young children and carved pumpkins or have their tents festooned with fairy lights. Still fewer have a pile of Amazon deliveries from well-wishers.
Camped out in the heart of British Government, Ratcliffe has been visited by a steady stream of MPs, including the Conservative MP for Ipswich Tom Hunt today.
This in itself is quite unusual.
“I have certainly been visited by more opposition MPS than those in the government,” says Ratcliffe. “I have had a lot of visits from the Labour front bench. Of those in the Government that did visit, very few wanted their picture taken.”
He has not been short of other well-known visitors wishing him well, including the author Kathy Lette, Victoria Coren and TV presenter Claudia Winkelman.
Ratcliffe says that despite promises from former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, little seems to be happening in official channels to secure the release of his wife.
“There have been no negotiations of substance for a while,” he says.
As the light faded and the temperature dropped again tonight, Ratcliffe’s hunger strike continued. Many experts say that the human body can endure around 25 days without eating before permanent damage occurs.
Ratcliffe plans to continue while he can.
“One of the things I have heard from other hunger strikers is that you eventually start closing in on yourself. That hasn’t happened so far,” he says. “You have to listen to your body though.”
Richard’s family and friends are naturally worried for his well-being and many are taking it in turns to keep his spirits up. As I speak to him, his mum – resplendent in a multi-coloured coat that belies the seriousness of the situation – pops over with a hot water bottle to keep the cold at bay.
Despite the cold and the growing concern of the effects of not eating, Ratcliffe will remain outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for now and certainly until later this week when Iran’s vice president Dr Ali Salajegheh leaves the UK after attending COP26 in Glasgow.
When the Government’s focus turns away again from the global ecofest, it needs to think about how it deals with Iran.
He says, “I don’t think the Foreign Office understands Iran properly. The Government also needs to look long and hard at its hostage policy and its ineffectiveness.”
Ratcliffe is clear on one thing that would help secure Nazanin’s release – the British Government could pay the £450 million that Ratcliffe and many others believe say it owes to the Iranian government. The money was paid to the UK in the 1970s by the then Shah of Iran to buy Chieftain tanks and armoured vehicles. When the Shah was deposed, Britain sold the vehicles instead to Iraq but kept the money.
Sign the petition to Free Nazanin here and, if you are in the UK, write to your MP.