Will UK’s judicial “bespoke sewer” be reformed at last?
London/ Vienna. November 24, 2021
by William Horsley, Media Freedom Representative
Nineteen organisations including the AEJ have expressed serious concern at the legal proceedings brought against journalist and author Catherine Belton and her publisher HarperCollins.
Two defamation lawsuits brought by Russian businessman Roman Abramovich and the Russian state energy company Rosneft concern her 2020 book Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West. Abramovich’s complaint relates to 26 passages, including the suggestion that his purchase of Chelsea Football Club in 2003 was directed by Vladimir Putin.
Rosneft’s complaint is to claims that they participated in the expropriation of the Yukos Oil Company, owned by imprisoned then exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Both claims were filed in March 2021 and the case has rumbled on through the summer.
“We believe that the lawsuits against Belton and HarperCollins amount to strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs),” the organisations said, referring to a form of legal harassment used by wealthy and powerful entities to silence journalists and other public watchdogs.
“SLAPPs are used to drain their targets of as much time, money, and energy as possible in order to bully them into silence. The individual may be sued personally, and several lawsuits may be brought at the same time, including in
different jurisdictions,” the organisations said. “These are hallmarks of SLAPPs, and they’re consistent with what Belton and HarperCollins have faced.”
Five separate claims were initially filed against Catherine Belton and her publisher. Three have since been resolved without any award for costs or damages. In June 2021, Abramovich filed an additional lawsuit against HarperCollins in Australia.
“We once again urge the UK government to consider measures, including legislative reforms, that would protect public watchdogs from being subject to burdensome, lengthy, and financially draining legal actions, which can stifle public debate,” the organisations (see below) concluded. “Our democracy relies on their ability to hold power to account.”
Edward Steen, AEJ Secretary-General, comments: “The London courts are known to the cognoscenti as ‘a bespoke sewer’ in which inconvenient journalists (and not only they) can be stitched up and often ruined. This is a powerful deterrent to all but the most courageous, or those with solid financial backing. The AEJ applauds HarperCollins for sticking up for its author in the courts, and European Commissioner Věra Jourová and the UK legal fraternity itself for condemning the longstanding abuse of SLAPPs. Not before time.”
Another groundbreaking book on Putin and corruption by Karen Dawisha remains unpublished because its publishers, Cambridge University Press, got cold feet over the expensive battle they risked facing in the courts.
At the time of her murder four years ago, the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galiza faced 47 different defamation cases or SLAPPs, as well as an army of trolls.
The SLAPP statement was signed by:
The Association of European Journalists (AEJ), AEJ Polish Section, ARTICLE 19, Blueprint for Free Speech, Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS), Citizen Network Watchdog Poland, Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, English PEN, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Index on Censorship, IFEX, Justice for Journalists Foundation, National Union of Journalists (NUJ), OBC Transeuropa (OBCT), PEN International, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Society of Journalists, Warsaw, Spotlight on Corruption, The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
♦ Latest news from libel case – Abramovich wins first round
♦ UK Law Society calls for shaming of SLAPP solicitors
♦ Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová’s message to AEJ
♦ Proposals for EU-wide anti-SLAPP Directive
♦ The Conversation on the inexorable rise of SLAPPs