SLAPPing Back at Corruption: Protecting Journalists from Frivolous Lawsuits

Investigative journalism plays a crucial role in exposing corruption. Journalistic exposés often prompt not only prosecutions, resignations, and other forms of individual accountability, but can also serve as the catalyst for broader legal and institutional reforms. Yet investigative journalism—especially into the misdeeds of the wealthy and powerful—is risky. Journalists can sometimes face physical threats, and occasionally deadly violence. Even when their safety is not in jeopardy, journalists investigating corruption encounter legal trouble. In some jurisdictions, governments take legal action against reporters, seeking to impose large fines or even incarceration. In other cases, the targets of investigative reporting seek to derail such reporting through defamation lawsuits, even when the defamation claims lack legal merit. These sorts of suits are commonly referred to as SLAPPs—Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. In many cases, the costs of defending against even a meritless defamation suit can drain the journalist or news organization’s funds, and such suits can also take a psychological toll on their targets. The litigious and deep-pocketed figures who bring SLAPPs seek to take advantage of these facts in order to intimidate journalists into silence.

Not all SLAPPs target journalists who expose corruption—the issue is much broader. But SLAPPs have frequently been used against journalists who write about corruption, and the anticorruption community therefore has a clear interest in legal reforms that would counter the threat that SLAPPs pose . So what can be done about this problem? Broadly speaking, there two primary legislative responses to the prevalence of SLAPPS: “Anti-SLAPP” laws and “SLAPPback” laws:

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