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SLAPP attack

SLAPPS? WHAT are those, then? They are Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Basically, they're a route for the very, very rich and powerful to throw multiple lawsuits against people who irritate them - often journalists. These legal actions often have no legal merit, but they are so enormously expensive to fight that the journalists and their publishers get cold feet and give up, retract, apologise and take their reporting down from the internet.

Those who bring SLAPPS against journalists are often mega-rich "oligarchs" - many from Russia, Kazakhstan or other former-Soviet countries. Tactics used include bringing legal actions simultaneously in multiple jurisdictions and submitting court documents in support of (often baseless) arguments that run into hundreds of pages. Surveillance of journalists and their sources is another tactic used.

Even making the most basic minimum necessary response and carrying out the most rudimentary holding actions in the courts to counter such a blizzard of legal actions can ruin and bankrupt a journalist, or panic their publishers into capitulating.

Foreign Affairs Committee video capure

Arabella Pike, Head of Publishing at HarperCollins; Catherine Belton, Author of Putin's People; Tom Burgis, investigative journalist at the Financial Times and Susan Coughtrie, Project Director, Unsafe for Scrutiny, Foreign Policy Centre prepare to address the Foreign Affairs Committee

Catherine Belton, author of Putin's People, and Tom Burgis, author of Kleptopia, have both been on the receiving end of SLAPPs. On 15 March they spoke to the UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee about them - video here and transcript here.

Since they were speaking to the Committee under Parliamentary privilege they could not be sued (in the jurisdiction of England and Wales at least) for remarks they made there. So they could be unusually candid about SLAPPs. Victims of SLAPPs are usually fearful of even talking about them. There have since followed sessions of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee on SLAPPs, which heard from more journalists and from lawyers for the Guardian, for HarperCollins publishers and for Greenpeace International.

Catherine told the Foreign Affairs Committee of SLAPPs demanding that "small changes" be made to Putin's People. If these hadn't been made, her publisher HarperCollins would have faced at least £2.5 million in legal costs in the UK and another $2.5 million in Australia, where a legal action was brought on behalf of Roman Abramovich.

Catherine and Tom told the Foreign Affairs Committee how anti-surveillance measures have become standard procedure for investigative reporting around oligarchs, given the threat of SLAPPs. The changes made to Putin's People were not because of any inaccuracy but "because we had too many cases to deal with".

The UK Government has since promised to respond. The Ministry of Justice has announced a "clampdown on SLAPPs" and issued a call for evidence on a consultation on SLAPPs. Possible measures could include a strengthening of the Defamation Act.

The NUJ's General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said the Union would welcome reform to "ensure journalists and media outlets no longer have to face prohibitive costs and deliberate intimidation by wealthy litigants with the deepest of pockets".

But there are problems with the UK government's response. There's the obvious question over the current government's competence to do anything. And it is presenting as exclusively a an "Russian oligarchs" thing, perhaps to deflect attention form the fact that some of them were the Tories' best mates only recently.

As a 2020 Chatham House report into The UK's Kleptocracy Problem noted, many of the "politically exposed persons and high-risk individuals from post-Soviet countries" with interests in the UK who bring SLAPPs against UK journalists are from Azerbaijan, Ukraine or Uzbekistan. Even hero of the hour President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine shows up in the Pandora Papers as having previously held a stake in an offshore company, which he appears to have transferred to a friend shortly before his election as President. SLAPPs are also a big problem in Croatia, where on 1 April there were 951 law suits aimed at journalists "burdening" the courts according to the Croatian Journalists' Association.

Another development of possible concern is that a lot of critics seem to be suddenly going after the lawyers, denouncing British law firms for taking on work for oligarchs who bring SLAPPs against journalists. Lawyers need to be able to take on any clients they want to - however unpopular - for the proper administration of criminal justice. Anything that discourages lawyers from defending certain types of client is bad for justice. Instead, legislation is needed to prevent these vexatious and meritless lawsuits going ahead. Solicitors already have a duty to report "misconduct" including "excessive or meritless claims, aggressive and intimidating threats".

A judge in the UK courts recently dismissed a SLAPP brought on behalf of a Kazakh mining giant against Tom Belton and HarperCollins for his Kleptopia book. The European Parliament has been on the case regarding SLAPPs for some time and last year adopted a report calling on the European Commission to introduce legislation to fight SLAPPs.

London Freelance Branch is currently inviting expert speakers to say more at a meeting on the SLAPP issue. Watch this space.