UK plays leading role in legal threats against investigative journalists, new report says

2 November 2020 — Open Democracy

Across the world, journalists investigating financial crime are most likely to face international legal action by UK-based companies, according to new research.

Thomas Rowley

For investigative journalists working on corruption, the UK harbours the biggest legal threat. It is the origin of more legal action against journalists than any other, apart from their home countries, a new report by the Foreign Policy Centre says.

The report, titled ‘Unsafe for Scrutiny: Examining the pressures faced by journalists uncovering financial crime and corruption around the world’, surveyed 63 investigative journalists working on financial crime and corruption from 41 countries around the world. The survey was conducted by the Foreign Policy Centre, a UK think tank.

“Investigative journalists uncovering financial crime and corruption are being subject to a significant amount of risks and threats, which has a chilling effect on their ability to continue to bring crucial matters of public interest to light,” said Susan Coughtrie, project director at the Foreign Policy Centre.

“Particularly alarming is the level and frequency, as highlighted by our survey, of legal threats being sent to journalists all over the world. The UK is the highest international source of these legal challenges – almost as high as EU countries and the US combined.”

Sixty-one per cent of respondents surveyed said that their investigations had found a connection, whether direct or otherwise, with UK financial and legal jurisdictions.

According to the report, 31% of respondents said that they had received legal threats from entities based in the UK, making it the “most frequent country of origin for legal threats” after respondents’ own home states (where 80% of respondents have received threats).

Seventy-three percent of respondents, the surveys says, had received letters with threats of legal action as a result of their publications, with civil defamation claims the most frequent reason (91% of all respondents who received legal communications).

“While progress is being made at the EU level to combat SLAPPs [strategic lawsuits against public participation], there is serious cause for concern that without adequate reform of the UK libel industry, cross-border legal cases – which we know emanate disproportionately from London – will continue to pose a major threat to international journalists reporting on financial crime and exposing corruption,” said Sarah Clarke, head of Europe and Central Asia at Article 19, an international organisation campaigning for freedom of expression and right to information.

“In allowing this abuse to continue, the UK government is not living up to its own stated commitments to protecting media freedom,” she added.

Fifty-one per cent of respondents cited a lack of financial support as the biggest challenge for continuing their work, then lack of legal assistance (49%), psychological support (35%) whistleblower protections (35%) and digital security support and advice (30%).

“Organized crime and corrupt politicians are doing everything in their power to stop us from informing the public. They are scared of thorough, cross-border reporting that impairs their abilities to conduct corrupt business as usual”

Aside from legal threats, the report also highlights the wide range of consequences that investigative reporting can entail – with verbal threats, social media trolling, written threats, questioning by authorities and civil legal cases all being reported as common.

“The amount of threats that can cause a psychological toll – including online trolling, smear campaigns and surveillance on- and offline – being experienced on a regular basis is deeply concerning,” said Coughtrie.

Respondents also reported that they experienced online and offline surveillance, smear campaigns, cease and desist letters and physical violence.

“This report places a spotlight on a huge problem affecting investigative reporting today. Organised crime and corrupt politicians are doing everything in their power to stop us from informing the public. They are scared of thorough, cross border reporting that impairs their abilities to conduct corrupt business as usual,” said Paul Radu, investigative journalist and co-founder of Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

The safety of investigative journalists has become an increasingly important issue in recent years. In 2017, investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb in Malta. In 2018, Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered alongside his fiance Martina Kušnírová.

The Foreign Policy Centre’s report was conducted with the support of OCCRP, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN).

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