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SLAPPs: A Legal Threat to Cross-Border Journalism

Today, the Justice for Journalists Foundation Director Maria Ordzhonikidze participated in the #UNCOVERED annual conference of the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) programme organised by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

Ms Ordzhonikidze participated on the panel: SLAPPs: A Legal Threat to Cross-Border Journalism along Flutura Kusari (Legal Advisor at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom ECPMF), Viola von Cramon MEP (Member of the Media Working Group at the European Parliament) and Per Agerman (Stockholm-based freelance journalist, writer for Realtid.se).

Maria’s Ordzhonikidze full speech is available below:

I am honoured to be here today and to represent the JFJ, a UK-based NGO created to support investigations of crimes against media workers.

As we started our activities in 2019, our main focus was violent crimes against journalists – murders, tortures, kidnappings, violence. These crimes are absolutely outrageous and have unfortunately become a normalised part of the political landscape in a growing number of countries. We all know how effective these methods are to silence the voice of truth in order to halt journalistic investigations into corruption, financial and economic crimes, and abuse of power. 

However, our vigorous research and daily monitoring of crimes against journalists has demonstrated the surge of legal cases against independent journalists (and by independent I mean independent from governments and financial and industrial groups who often own media). 

Is it because the modern media became so ruthless in its slandering, lying about and framing honest officials and businesses? 

Or is rather because the internet and novel information gathering methods gave unprecedented powers to the citizens, including journalists, to put the rich and powerful in the spotlight and demand greater accountability and transparency? 

We believe it is the latter. Our conclusion is based on the in-depth analysis of the developments in 12 post-Soviet states, where with the help of local experts we monitor the attacks against media workers on the daily basis. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2020, out of total of 44 hundred attacks against journalists, 10% were physical attacks, while whooping 72% (3145) were attacks via judicial and quasi-legal means.

If we take Russia, 2017 saw 27 lawsuits brought against journalists, and 2020 – 204. This is 10-fold increase! Reported physical attacks increased only by 29% in the same period.

We started to dig deeper in the subject and discovered striking similarities in methods favoured by the authoritarian governments and businessmen who enjoy their above-the-law status. Moreover, we also discovered transborder cooperation between state security services in cases concerning extradition and kidnappings of independent journalists.

Just a few examples to put names behind the numbers: 

In 2017 Freelance Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was abducted in Tbilisi, Georgia, illegally moved to Azerbaijan, and spent next 3 years in jail on charges of illegal border crossing, smuggling and disobedience to the authorities. He lived in Georgia since 2014 where he fled with his family because he was persecuted for harshly criticising Azeri government. 

In August 2020, a freelance Uzbek journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev was arrested in Kyrgyzstan on the extradition request form Uzbek authorities for “disseminating materials that target the existing constitutional order of Uzbekistan via social media” and after spending a month is jail, was extradited to Uzbekistan. All of that despite the fact he had already spent several months in Uzbek jail, where he was subjected to harsh treatment. 

In October 2020, Russian independent journalist Irina Slavina committed suicide after publicly accusing Russian Federation in her death. This desperate act followed several years of legal and judicial harassment against the journalist, who was subjected to 7 legal attacks in 2020 alone. 

The most recent case is legal harassment and intimidation of another Russian investigative journalist Roman Anin, who in the space of three days was interrogated twice, his house was searched, all the computers, gadgets and USB sticks were confiscated. This is all happening because he is accused of “violation of privacy” of President Putin’s right hand man Igor Sechin, who spent over 100 million dollars to acquire a yacht for his young wife Olga in 2016. 

Along with an emblematic case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who continued her brave journalism despite dozens of defamation and other legal cases initiated against her, and was eventually brutally murdered, these cases demonstrate the trend that is acquiring strength all over the world.

JFJ has continuously supported investigation into Daphne’s murder and last year made a decision to dedicate more support to SLAPP in the countries where something can still be done to counter the abusive force of untransparent wealth and unaccountable power.

In 2020 JFJ dedicated over USD 200k to support investigations into how the SLAPPs are being used against journalists and free speech.

We are currently supporting European Centre for Press and media Freedom in Leipzig, UK’s Foreign Policy Centre, Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa and ARTICLE 19 in Mexico and Colombia, as well as individual media experts and researches around the world to counter SLAPPs

It is already evident that the SLAPP issue is not well enough understood or sometimes intentionally ignored by the governments and there is a need to demonstrate the level to which this is a problem affecting the independent journalists.

All programmes we support typically include five main components and this approach proves effective for the long-term goals of making the intimidation of journalists via SLAPP mechanisms visible and eventually illegal. 

  • research and analysis
  • public awareness raising
  • stakeholders engagement
  • initiatives to limit the initiation or progression of SLAPP cases
  • development of potential regulatory and legislative reforms to prevent SLAPP at source

Our findings help us to summarise the trend. They demonstrate that the journalists conducting investigations against corruption or abuse of power very frequently are threatened or faced with litigation for defamation, violation of privacy, libel, or even extremism, support of terrorism, or presenting a threat to the constitutional order. These cases very often involve large legal and reputation-laundering firms based in the UK and EU, and they also touch upon murky financial schemes, large properties, offshore companies, and transnational cooperation of state security services. In Azerbaijan and Malta, in Kazakhstan and the US, in Italy and Russia, in UK and United Arab Emirates, the corrupt officials and oligarchs are much closer to each other than it is allowed to be reported. 

In the global world evil and corruption are trans-border. We need to have a global vision and transnational understanding of quasi-legal mechanisms utilised in SLAPPs in order to educate the public and ultimately eradicate the corrupt practice of abusing legal systems to silence the truth.

For our 2021 grant programme we have already received good quality proposals from other countries that if supported by our Advisory and Founding board, JFJ will continue to invest into eliminating this very real threat to free and independent journalism.

Panel talk SLAPPs: A Legal Threat to Cross-Border Journalism is available on YouTube.