Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, are an increasing threat to independent media globally. These lawsuits are filed against media organizations and journalists by influential political actors and business elites solely to silence critical reporting. By tying up a journalist or news outlet in lengthy and therefore costly legal proceedings, SLAPPs take a significant financial, legal, and reputational toll on journalists and media organizations that aim to hold power to account. The weaponization of the legal system against independent journalism now represents a systemic threat to news organizations around the world that are already struggling to stay afloat.
In the latest report by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy, Fighting SLAPPs: What Can Media, Lawyers, and Funders Do?, Peter Noorlander discusses tactics that journalists, activists, and defense lawyers can use to fight SLAPPs.
Here are five things to know about addressing the global SLAPP crisis:
There is a need for strategies that can take the pressure off news outlets in the short term.
While changing defamation or privacy laws is usually a lengthy and controversial process, changing court rules or introducing secondary legislation can be done far more quickly. This can include measures such as capping the cost of legal defense, instituting early dismissal provisions, or expanding the availability of legal aid.
Partnerships between lawyers and journalists are key in the fight against SLAPPs.
Strong partnerships between lawyers and journalists are crucial in the pre-publication stage as well as in the defense of any SLAPP litigation. A media outlet that has access to specialist media lawyers is immeasurably better equipped to resist a SLAPP than an outlet or a journalist who faces the prospect of defending the case on their own.
Solidarity among news outlets can help build resilience against legal threats.
Solidarity among media, journalists, activists, and other SLAPP victims can be game-changing. Through their combined powers, coalitions of media organizations can provide resources. They can also provide important emotional support to alleviate the psychological burden of defending SLAPPs.
Donors should support legal defense campaigns.
The lawyers defending SLAPP cases are often part of a small community of lawyers willing to take public interest cases. While these lawyers are often willing to work pro bono, this is not always realistically possible, particularly in countries outside of North America and Western Europe. Some donor support is therefore required.
Legal reform is not the only solution to the SLAPPs problem.
Alongside advocating for law reform, other tactics journalists, activists, and defense lawyers can use to defang SLAPPs include setting up mutual insurance mechanisms, pooling resources, and advocating for changes to court rules to empower SLAPP defendants.