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ANTI-SLAPP CONFERENCE

On 22-23 November, the Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ) and the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) organised UK’s first Anti-SLAPP Conference. The full recording of the event is available on YouTube. More information about SLAPPs, useful resources for media workers and proposals for reform to counter legal intimidation and SLAPP in the UK can be found on the conference website.  

JFJ’s Director, Maria Ordzhonikidze, in her closing remarks summed up three important concepts that were highlighted during the conference:

“First is the expression ‘Chilling effect’, which certainly deserves special attention, as the frequency with which we heard these words in the course of each testimony and speech of our conference was certainly striking. This describes – and puts it very mildly I must say – the detrimental demoralising impact of these exhausting tactics with zero legal merits that are aimed solely at draining the journalists’ resources: moral, emotional, financial, reputation, physical.

Coming from such a chilly country that has had only a couple of decades of thaws in over 100 years of political and social deep freeze, I can testify of the destructive impact it has had on generations of people. Those who speak up, who are keen to discover and publicise the truth, who defend democratic values are either squeezed out of the country, or deprived of their freedom, or sometimes even driven to take their own lives, as the only remaining means to express their protest against this gripping political winter.

I am very hopeful that examples of actions by aggressive and unaccountable kleptocracies like Russia and Kazakhstan mentioned today, and Belarus, Turkmenistan, China not mentioned today, as well as various corporations and fraudsters that take using so-called ‘legal methods’ against media to the extreme, will serve as a wakeup call to the rest of the world.

Naming those countries and actors, well known for their oppressing practices, leads me to the second concept that I would to highlight, which is weaponised bullying. It takes a lot to stand up to bullying. Weaponised well-funded bullying, pretending to be legitimate lawsuits and covered up by seemingly the most respectable members of the society – legal professionals- is almost impossible to stand up to. That is if one is trying to resist it alone.

What this conference explicitly showed was that no one has to do it alone. Although there is a gaping inequality of the playing field, and the lawfare is supported by unlimited funds, there is a growing recognition of this phenomenon, while the body of support has formed and is strengthening as we speak. This conference has clearly contributed to the growing awareness of what is hiding behind the smokescreen of legalistic language on fancily letterheaded letters. SLAPPs against journalists or lawfare or quasi-legal bullying should stop!

As this incredible collection of talent that we had a privilege to listen to over the last two days had vividly demonstrated – we do have a capacity to stop it. 

Which brings me to the third concept that was implied during every speech we heard yesterday and verbalised explicitly today – solidarity. Although journalism used to be viewed as a highly competitive industry, we now see more and more cooperation between journalists from different countries working to uncover transnational crimes. It is my strong belief that such cooperation within the industry must be taken further. I believe it is ultimately the enhanced solidarity within this industry and beyond that will save journalism from the aggressive and destructive might of hybrid attacks, of which SLAPPs are an integral part.

We have purposely brought speakers from all over the world to this conference. It was heart-warming to listen to the mutual expressions of solidarity and awe about the similarities of experiences by journalists from South Africa, the USA, Australia, Latin America, Europe and the UK. This conference has created momentum and expanded the anti-SLAPP network. It has also recreated the #MeToo moment both on the fringes of the event and later when Rebecca Vincent from RSF voiced it during her remarks. I find this incredibly inspirational.

I am optimistic about this momentum, this shared experience, this solidarity and of course, the targeted counter-SLAPP measures discussed over the last two days. To name a few, those measures include publicity, trial monitoring, advocacy, lobbying for the anti-SLAPP legislation, simplifying the legal process, judicial training, financial, psychological and legal help to the targets of vexatious legal actions.

If argued for, promoted and implemented systematically, those measures will ultimately lead to a much more favourable environment for exposing the wrongdoings, strengthening media freedom and, ultimately, genuine, and not declarative, democracy worldwide. Dario Milo in his opening remarks this morning quoted an old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. He said he was proud to be a part of this anti-SLAPP village that is now rising unanimously to the challenge. I would like to join him in the hope that this village will take our collective case further and ultimately win this war.” 

PUBLIC CONSULTATION

As launched at the Anti-SLAPP conference, the UK Anti-SLAPP working group has developed proposals for reform to counter legal intimidation and SLAPP in the UK. Feedback into the proposals will be welcomed by 31 December 2021 and can be submitted here. The full text of the UK working group proposals is available here

RECORDING OF THE EVENT

Full recording of Day One:

Full recording of Day Two