A Nefarious and Hidden Threat to Journalists Rises

September 1, 2022

At the end of last year, two hundred and ninety-three journalists were in jail around the world (a modern record), and dozens more had been killed. There are robust mechanisms for documenting and denouncing those cases. But no one knows precisely how many journalists were hit with crippling and frivolous lawsuits, because the practice, while growing, is largely hidden. In fact, slapps—Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation—have become a leading threat to journalists and press freedom worldwide, and have stifled critical reporting on organized crime and political corruption, a growing transnational threat.

There are differing views about what constitutes a slapp suit, but everyone agrees that they are a form of legal harassment. Because slapps tend to be civil actions on behalf of private individuals or entities—sometimes carried out with government support—they generate limited coverage, and far less outrage than traditional repressive strategies.

Susan Coughtrie, deputy director of the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) and one of Europe’s top experts on slapps, says the effects of lawsuits can be devastating. “Journalists or media may capitulate and give in as the financial risk is too high, and therefore you may never hear of the threat,” Coughtrie noted. Other vulnerable groups include environmental activists, human rights defenders, whistleblowers, and academics.

Investigative journalists are often targets, particularly in Europe. A 2020 FPC report, which surveyed sixty-three European investigative journalists covering crime and corruption in more than forty countries, found that harassing lawsuits were a greater concern than physical or digital threats.

Alexander Papachristou, the executive director of the Cyrus Vance Center for International Justice, which provides legal representation to civil-society organizations and journalists globally, said that slapps represent a very large percentage of its cases. “We can see the increase in the frequency and aggression of slapps as coinciding with globalization and with the transnational expansion of corruption and organized crime,” Papachristou said.

London—despite the June 2022 legal victory by investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and the dismissal of the libel case against her—remains a favored legal venue. Paul Radu, cofounder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), spent two years there battling an Azerbaijani businessman and member of parliament, Javanshir Feyziyev. In a 2017 investigative report titled The Azerbaijani Laundromat, Radu linked Feyziyev to a money-laundering scheme that allegedly transferred billions of dollars through shell companies around the world. The case was finally settled in 2020. 

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Polish journalists also face constant legal harassment. The daily Gazeta Wyborcza has been hit with ninety lawsuits since the Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power in 2015. The publication has been flooded with demands for corrections. The Polish group Journalism Society found that one hundred eighty-seven legal complaints, sixty-six of them slapps, were filed against local media between 2015 and 2021, mostly by individuals and entities with links to the state.

The shocking murder of an investigative journalist in Malta made clear that slapps are often a tool in a broader repressive arsenal. Before she was killed by car bomb in 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was facing forty-seven libel lawsuits filed by companies, government officials, and individuals. She refused to back down and was targeted for murder.

Daphne’s son Matthew Caruana Galizia called slapps “a form of torture” and believes that the situation has only grown worse since his mother’s death. “Before, there were a few legal firms starting lawsuits against journalists. Now you have a lot,” said Matthew.

The slapp suits against Daphne Caruana Galizia were also a wake-up call. European nongovernmental organizations came together to found the Coalition Against slapps in Europe, known as case. case worked with the Amsterdam Law Clinics to catalogue and analyze slapps across Europe, documenting more than six hundred cases over a decade. A report published by case entitled “Shutting Criticism: How slapps Threaten European Democracy” found that the number of slapps in Europe has increased in each of the past three years.

While the issue is particularly acute in Europe, slapps are a global phenomenon. In Asia, the ongoing legal cases against Malaysiakini in Malaysia and Rappler in the Philippines have become emblematic. Rappler founder and editor Maria Ressa faces jail on multiple counts of “cyberlibel” filed by a businessman in the Philippines, as well as other charges. Ressa has managed to stay out of prison, but her legal defense has taken a terrible toll, draining resources and time and sending a chilling message to other Philippine media outlets that might consider taking on corruption reporting.

In Latin America, Brazil is a special case. For over a decade, politicians, government officials, and businesspeople have filed harassing lawsuits that have damaged the reputation or invaded the privacy of journalists, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Taís Gasparian, a prominent media lawyer, said that the practice has become so common that it is known as the “industry of compensation.”

The situation has worsened during the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, and his critics have taken note—including the filmmaker and journalist João Paulo Cuenca. Since 2020 Cuenca has been sued a hundred and forty times by pastors of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, who claim they were libeled in a tweet alleging the Brazilian government had spent huge sums on ads in media owned by its evangelical Christian allies.

Gasparian, who is leading a new organization, Tornavoz, that defends journalists facing legal abuse, notes that often, a single powerful individual is behind multiple lawsuits. Businessman Luciano Hang, who owns the Havan retail chain and is a strong Bolsonaro supporter, filed at least thirty-seven lawsuits against the press, critics, or opponents between 2013 and 2021, according to a survey compiled by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, known as ABRAJI.

While slapp suits generally involve private actors, governments have also appropriated the most common strategies. In Central America, media outlets that denounce corruption have been targeted repeatedly. The government of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador has harassed the crusading El Faro, an online medium, subjecting it to illegal spying, threats, and wide-ranging audits for alleged tax evasion.

International press freedom hero José Rubén Zamora, president and founder of Guatemala’s elPeriódico, has been in jail since July 29, accused of money laundering, blackmail, and influence peddling. Prior to being jailed, Zamora was hit with one hundred and ninety slapp suits. Nearly forty of them remain open, according to his son José Zamora.

When it comes to slapps, journalists and media outlets lose even when they win. Saddled with legal costs and lost hours, they may think twice before taking on the next critical investigation. In too many instances, the law has become an instrument of repression—and the public is left in the dark.

Research support came from the Thomson Reuters Foundation as part of a yearlong project to document emerging legal threats to press freedom around the world.

Joel Simon and Carlos Lauria are, respectively, a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School and a press freedom expert and consultant for Cadal foundation.