UNESCO: Journalists Increasingly Silenced by Abusive Lawsuits

Published: 09 December 2022

Freedom of Speech Press

Press freedom has been increasingly curtailed by SLAPP suits, UNESCO says. (Photo: Narih Lee, Flickr, License)

By Josef Skrdlik

New data published by UNESCO highlights what it calls an increased abuse of the judicial system to attack journalists and undermine freedom of expression around the world.

“The use of judicial proceedings against journalists reporting on public interest matters is a growing threat to press freedom around the world,” said Pádraig Hughes, legal director at Media Defense, an international organization providing legal assistance to journalists. “Powerful individuals, corporations and government officials have in recent years adopted this tactic to silence and harass independent journalists.”

In particular, UNESCO registered an increase in defamation lawsuits and strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPPs.

Unlike normal lawsuits, SLAPPs are filed not to win specific court cases but to burden the defendants with protracted legal proceedings and excessive costs, ultimately aiming to discourage journalists from continuing their work.

Such suits often entail ‘forum-shopping’, referring to a practice whereby plaintiffs file cases in jurisdictions deemed most likely to rule in their favor.

Multiple international organizations, including UNESCO, support decriminalization of defamation, which would reclassify defamation from a criminal to civil violation and thus ease the defendant's legal burden and remove the threat of imprisonment.

This campaign has faced a major setback in recent years, according to UNESCO, because some countries have reintroduced provisions on defamation in new laws intending to address cybersecurity, disinformation and hate speech. At least 57 laws and regulations were newly adopted across 44 countries and might, owing to their vagueness or disproportionate punishments, further threaten freedom of expression, UNESCO said.

Eastern and Central Europe, in particular, have seen an increased use of defamation laws.

Currently, defamation is criminalized in 160 countries, amounting to 80 percent of the countries in the world. UNESCO has recommended that countries should repeal these “criminal defamation laws and replace them with appropriate civil defamation legislation in line with international standards.”