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Oppressive lawsuits brought by wealthy individuals to intimidate journalists and critics have long been used to stifle free speech. However, since 2015 there has been a sharp rise in SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) not only in Europe but globally, according to the latest report Weaponising the Law: Attacks on Media Freedom by The Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

The situation is dire in many countries. Poland’s national daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza has been hit with at least 90 lawsuits since the ruling Law and Justice Party, PiS, came to power in 2015. elPeriódico, the Guatemalan daily whose corruption coverage in 2015 led to the arrest of dozens of government officials, recently stopped its paper edition because it could no longer afford to print, and moved exclusively online. The outlet has some 40 SLAPPs open against it, and its president and founder José Rubén Zamora Marroquín has been in jail since July 2022.

However, it is UK journalists who are mainly targeted by SLAPPs and a key reason why press freedom in the country is slipping. A 2020 FPC report found that the UK is by far the most frequent international country of origin for legal threats, after the reporters' home countries. The UK was almost as frequently a source of these legal threats as the European Union countries and the US combined.

Read more: Parliamentary committee calls for tougher action against SLAPPs

The situation has deteriorated so much that UK judges are to be given new powers to dismiss oppressive lawsuits at an early stage thanks to amendments added to the economic crime and corporate transparency bill.

"Although these lawsuits are unfounded," says Will Church, director of media freedom programme at Thomson Reuters Foundation, "we always advise journalists to be as tight on legal requirements as it gets."

Ideally, journalists get lawyers looped in from the beginning of the reporting process to make sure their sourcing, wording and fact-checking are bulletproof.

Legal advice, however, comes with a bill that many smaller outlets and freelance journalists cannot afford. To help them continue their investigative work, Thomson Reuters Foundation collaborated with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Media Defence to create a single entry point into a system of support known as The Legal Network for Journalists at Risk (LNJAR).

Since last year, the network offers legal advice and support, produces practical legal tools for journalists and can also help with legal costs. Its scope is global and applications are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Reporters Shield is another organisation that defends investigative reporters internationally. It was created by investigative journalists at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and lawyers from the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice. It offers pro-bono legal support to help reduce the risk of lawsuits and also funds legal assistance to fight SLAPPs.

Church says that pooling in resources and joining investigations with other outlets is another strategy that helps spread risks as well as any legal cost.

Read more: Two UK investigative outlets are crowdfunding £40k to fight SLAPP

Although the use of SLAPPs is on the rise, there are positive developments too. The European Commission issued Recommendation 2022/758 "on protecting journalists and human rights defenders who engage in public participation from manifestly unfounded or abusive court proceedings (‘Strategic lawsuits against public participation’ - SLAPPs)". The recommendation urges member states to review defamation laws to ensure they cannot be weaponised to silence journalists and that penalties are not disproportionate.

The UN Human Rights Council’s 2020 Resolution on the Safety of Journalists also called for ensuring that defamation and libel laws are not misused to censor journalists.

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