UK Forms Task Force to Combat SLAPP Lawsuits Targeting Journalists

The British government is initiating a task force of media representatives and legal associations to tackle a concerning trend of lawsuits aimed to silence reporters.

Freedom of Speech PressThe UK is ranked 26th out of 180 countries in the RSF 2023 World Press Freedom Index. (Photo: Narih Lee, Flickr, License)Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — known as SLAPPs — are commonly used by wealthy individuals, including Russian oligarchs, and corporations and are intended to censor, intimidate and drain the budgets of a journalist or newsroom either until the critical reporting is abandoned or all the way to bankruptcy.

The task force’s inaugural meeting took place on Monday and for starters, the group will conduct a research on the frequency of SLAPPs targeting journalists.

It will also examine how legal regulations can prevent or reduce SLAPPs, create plans for specialized training to help judges and legal professionals identify and dismiss SLAPPs more effectively, and provide guidance to support journalists, publications, and legal professionals.

“SLAPPs have led to journalists having to crowdfund their legal fees and some have even been forced to sell their homes - simply for doing their job,” said Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer.

“Working together with industry leaders, we will develop strong measures which enhance the freedom of the press to expose wrongdoing without fear of our justice system being abused to silence journalists,” Frazer remarked.

The U.K. Government has already made changes in June 2023 to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to address SLAPPs related to economic crimes, which constitute a significant majority (estimated up to 70%) of such cases in U.K. courts. These amendments will enable judges to swiftly dismiss SLAPPs and impose a limit on the costs incurred by targeted individuals, reducing their effectiveness in pressuring journalists to abandon their stories.

According to the Government, a recent report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation indicates a substantial increase in SLAPPs since 2015, with half of journalists surveyed reporting legal action taken against them or their organizations due to their reporting.

The taskforce will bring together key stakeholders from the media and legal sectors, including the Society of Editors, The National Union of Journalists, and the Law Society of England and Wales.

They will focus on safeguarding public interest journalism from SLAPPs, including those associated with non-economic crimes.

Data from the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) revealed an enormous increase of cases in the U.K.

In 2021, an estimated 14 cases were identified in England and Wales, compared to just two in both 2020 and 2019. There was only one case in 2018.

However, CASE's database recorded over 820 cases in 2023, a rise from 570 cases in 2022.

The press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), will also be part of the new task force.

“It is very encouraging to see SLAPPs being recognised as a serious and growing threat to public interest reporting. While there is still a need for comprehensive anti-SLAPP legislation in the U.K., we look forward to working with our partners on the taskforce to develop complementary measures to protect journalists from such emotionally and financially costly suits,” said Fiona O'Brien, RSF U.K. Bureau Director.

The task force will regularly update the National Committee for the Safety of Journalism and will meet every two months over the next year.