Senior media figures call for law to stop oligarchs silencing UK journalists

Editors urge ministers to end ‘endemic’ use of Slapps – legal cases designed to hinder investigations

• David Davis: Democracy is at risk. We can’t let oligarchs exploit British courts to silence their critics

A coalition of senior journalists and editors from across the political spectrum is calling on the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, to back a proposed law to tackle the global super-rich’s use of “abusive legal tactics to shut down investigations”.

More than 70 newspaper editors, publishers and media lawyers wrote to Raab on Tuesday demanding that the government take urgent action to stop oligarchs and kleptocrats from using their fortunes to exploit British courts, intimidating and silencing investigative journalists with strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps).

The letter, signed by the editors of the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Times, calls on Raab to urgently act to tackle the “endemic” use of Slapps, which they said was hampering not only investigative journalism but also “law enforcement’s ability to investigate wrongdoing promptly and effectively”.

The signatories called on Raab to support a proposed “UK anti-Slapp law” and “move swiftly to enshrine these proposals” in the statute book.

“This is a problem that has long been endemic in newsrooms, publishing houses, and civil society organisations,” they wrote. “In an age of increasing financial vulnerability in the news industry, it is all too easy for such abusive legal tactics to shut down investigations and block accountability.”

The journalist coalition, which also includes the editors of the Sun, the Financial Times and Bloomberg, claimed recent examples of Slapps included Roman Abramovich suing the journalist Catherine Belton over her book Putin’s People, and the Kazakh mining firm ENRC suing the journalist Tom Burgis over his book about “dirty money”.

They said these cases were “just the most visible manifestation of a much broader problem which has affected newspapers across Fleet Street and the wider UK media industry for many years”.

Burgis, author of the book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World, said: “The rich and powerful from Russia to Saudi Arabia use brutality to keep their secrets secret. For too long they, along with plenty of rich and powerful westerners, have had another highly effective tool for crushing the free press: the British legal system. Now that we have realised that our courts are being abused in this way, how can we let it continue?”

Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, said: “The abuse of the UK legal system by powerful individuals and vested interests to intimidate journalists should be a subject of national shame. The British government has taken this issue seriously for the first time in a generation, and this model law provides a clear opportunity for the government to act on its good intentions to pass legislation without delay.”

The letter points out that Raab said in March, when he launched a consultation on Slapps, that the government would “not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their wrongdoing”.

When the consultation’s findings were published in July it concluded that “the type of activity identified as Slapps … go beyond the parameters of ordinary litigation and pose a threat to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press”.

Tom Tugendhat, the minister of state for security, last week refused to accept an amendment to the economic crime bill that would have given judges the power to dismiss Slapps. Tugendhat said he agreed the law needed to be reformed to tackle the threat of Slapps to public interest journalism, but it was not appropriate to add the amendment to the economic crime bill. He said the Ministry of Justice was working on a piece of “anti-Slapps legislation” that addressed the whole problem.

Susan Coughtrie, the deputy director of the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) and co-chair of the UK Anti-Slapp Coalition, said: “Two years ago, FPC’s research identified the UK as the leading international source for legal threats against journalists investigating financial crime and corruption.

“The ongoing war in Ukraine is a stark reminder of the devastation unchecked corruption can cause, sadly too often facilitated by the UK’s financial and legal services. Adopting a UK anti-Slapp law would protect those trying to uncover wrongdoing – in any form – and ensure the free flow of information about matters of public interest, essential to any healthy democracy.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “This issue is of the utmost importance and is being given urgent consideration. We intend to introduce legislative proposals as soon as possible.”


Rupert Neate Wealth correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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