As the UK government seeks ways to take on Russian oligarchs with links to Vladimir Putin’s regime, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has asked government lawyers to “find literally any way” to crack down on “Slapps” – or strategic lawsuits against public participation – where the wealthy exploit lengthy and expensive legal procedures to silence journalists, critics and watchdogs.
How do Slapps differ from ordinary defamation lawsuits?
While Slapps generally arise out of defamation lawsuits and ostensibly have the same purpose – of protecting the claimant’s reputation – they are seen as an attempt to shut down public criticism, with the claimant often indifferent about whether they actually win the case.
What is the threat posed by Slapps?
The fear is that they discourage investigative reporting into rich and powerful people because of the potential costs of defending a claim, even if it has little or no merit.
In a parliamentary debate on Slapps in January, David Davis, a Conservative MP and former cabinet minister, said “nefarious” actors were using the justice system “to threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations”. He described such tactics as “lawfare”.
The Foreign Policy Centre said the UK was “the most frequent country of origin” for foreign legal threats against investigative journalists.
How are Slapps connected to Russian oligarchs?
The use of Slapps is not confined to Russians but one of the most notorious recent examples, characterised as such by MPs as well as free speech campaigners, related to Putin’s People, a book written by the journalist Catherine Belton about the Russian leader.
She and her publisher, HarperCollins, were sued over a number of matters in the book by multiple Russian billionaires, including Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea football club, Mikhail Fridman, the owner of Russia’s largest non-state bank, and the Russian state oil company Rosneft. All of the claims were subsequently settled or withdrawn. Abramovich ended his case after HarperCollins accepted some information concerning him was inaccurate and agreed to make revisions to the book. HarperCollins apologised and agreed to make a payment to charity in recognition of a particular error, but otherwise no damages were paid and both sides agreed to pay their own costs.
What can governments do to counter Slapps?
Many US states, as well as some Canadian provinces, have brought in anti-Slapp laws. They are not all the same but typically involve the publisher being able to apply to the court at an early stage for a lawsuit to be dismissed if it relates to content that is in the public interest.
In an interview with the Guardian, the leading media defence lawyer, Caroline Kean, proposed that the publisher should not even have to make an application, which could be costly in itself, but the judge should automatically decide at the outset of each case whether it related to public interest journalism and if so, it should be halted and resolved by granting a prominent right to reply.
In the parliamentary debate, another Tory MP, Bob Seely, suggested the government should “go after” law firms who lodged Slapps on behalf of clients, although he did not specify how this should be done.