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Parliamentary debate – Lawfare and Investigative Journalism

On 17th October, Parliament held an adjournment debate to discuss how investigative journalists are repeatedly targeted with strategic and financially crippling lawsuits to suppress their freedom of speech. This is also known as lawfare – where wealthy individuals abuse the law for political and military ends. Parliament discussed the high-profile legal action brought by the Nazarbayev fund and how this requires urgent anti-SLAPP legislation to be passed in the UK. 

Nazarbayev’s legal action 

The debate began with a detailed discussion of what David Davies MP called “the outrageous case of lawfare that centres around the former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev”. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Daily Telegraph examined how Nazarbayev used the UK to conceal >a multibillion-dollar business empire. [1] Legitimate queries were raised around the UK incorporated company Jusan Technologies which is reported as being largely controlled by the Nazarbayev fund. The business reportedly has $8 billion in gross assets, held in sectors such as banking, telecom and retail, and only one member of staff in the UK in 2020. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Daily Telegraph received letters threatening High Court libel action, this provides a prime example of how wealthy individuals can use the British legal system to repress free speech and transparency.

Anti-SLAPP legislation

Parliament discussed how journalists need to feel safe from physical harm and intimidation. The government has already acknowledged that journalists are shying away from publishing information on certain individuals and topics because of legal costs. [2] MPs asked the Government to commit to either a free-standing anti-SLAPP bill or make amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparancy Bill.

The UK anti-SLAPP Coalition has drafted an anti-SLAPP bill, which Protect supports. This provides judges with the power to dismiss cases which are abusive and in response to an act brought about in the public interest. Furthermore, the Bill aims to:

  1. Protect acts of public participation (includes whistleblowing) and expression on matters of public interest;
  2. Prevent the abuse of court processes to silence speech; and
  3. Discourage the use of litigation as a means of limiting expression and investigation of matters on matters of public interest.

Conclusions from the debate

The Government sought to reassure the House, by explaining they are persuaded by the need to act and do intend to pass anti-SLAPP legislation. This was caveated with the need to wait until the legislation is ‘right’ and parliamentary time allows. Backbench MPs emphasised how this issue needs to be treated with caution. SLAPPs are difficult to identify, and other countries have hastily drafted legislation in this area and needed to go back and rectify it.

Importance for whistleblowers

The passing of anti-SLAPP legislation is of huge significance to whistleblowers. Those who exhaust internal and external options, may need to raise their concerns to the media. However, their story could be suppressed through an expensive lawsuit, if it is one that upsets the rich and powerful. This will damage the public interest and remove another potential avenue for escalating concerns.

Furthermore, during the debate Mr David Davis MP who proposed the debate emphasised:

With every letter and every stage of legal action, organisations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism must divert resources and attention away from public interest reporting and towards defending themselves against bogus or trivial claims.” [4]

SLAPPS mean journalists have less time to investigate the concerns raised by whistleblowers and others and voices may go unheard as a result. SLAPP lawsuits have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression. The Government need to move quickly to ensure that future whistleblowers are not prevented from speaking up and that they have their concerns investigated.






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