English law ‘abused by the powerful to threaten foreign journalists’ warns think tank

Posted on: November 2, 2020 by Claire Meadows

English law is being abused by powerful individuals in order to threaten foreign journalists, a leading foreign policy think tank has warned.

In a report titled ‘Unsafe for Scrutiny: Examining the pressures faced by journalists uncovering financial crime and corruption around the world’ the Foreign Policy Centre warned that the UK was one of the most frequent countries of origin for legal threats and that, as a result, the libel industry is in “clear need of review”.

The report warns that in recent years, a growing number of foreign freelance journalists have reported receiving letters from London law firms acting on behalf of the people they are investigating and that those reporting from outside the UK on financial crime and corruption face almost as many threats of court action in Britain as they do from all other European countries and the United States combined.

Susan Coughtrie, Project Director at the Foreign Policy Centre said that the report suggested that there was a “clear need” in the UK for further review of libel laws.

She said: “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. 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 – which points to a clear need for further review to prevent potential vexatious misuse of the UK legal system.”

Furthermore, the FPC said that the UK needed to do more to look specifically at threats posed to journalists abroad.

It said: “If the UK wants to take a strong stance on anti-corruption as well as safety of journalists globally … there is a clear need to review and reassess what measures can be taken to prevent abuse by corrupt figures at home as well as abroad.”

Published today (Monday 2 November 2020) , the “Unsafe for Scrutiny” report presents the findings of a global survey conducted in September – October 2020 and hears from more than 60 journalists in 41 countries. The aim of the survey was to uncover the scope and scale of risks and threats facing investigative journalists across the world who have been targeted for uncovering financial crime and corruption, and was supported by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN).

Other key findings of the report included that 31% of respondents said that they had been threatened with court action in London, mainly for defamation or privacy claims. The UK was referred to as the most common jurisdiction for legal threats after a journalist’s home country. At least 61% of respondents also reported their investigations had uncovered a link (directly or indirectly) with UK financial and legal jurisdictions.