Defending Those Who Expose Corruption: Defamation Safe Harbor Legislation to Protect Investigative Journalists

In May 2017, Russian journalist Dmitry Popkov, who investigated corruption in local governments, was shot five times and found dead in his backyard. The perpetrators were never identified. In October 2017, a car bomb killed Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had been investigating possible corruption by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Although three suspects were charged with carrying out the attack, the masterminds behind the plot were never found. And in February 2018, an unidentified hitman killed Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, both 27, in the couple’s newly-purchased home. Kuciak was in the middle of an investigation of the Italian organized crime group ’Ndrangheta and its corrupt ties to Slovakia’s governing political party SMER. Slovak officials arrested seven suspects allegedly connected to the ’Ndrangheta and the murder, but did not find enough evidence to file charges and released them 48 hours later. Although weeks of mass demonstrations led to the resignation of the Slovak Prime Minister, the perpetrators of Kuciak’s murder were never held accountable.

Sadly, these are not the only such incidents. Reporters Without Borders states that last year 39 journalists were murdered because “their reporting threatened political, economic, or criminal interests.” And in many of these cases, despite government assurances of a thorough investigation—and despite a 2013 United Nations Resolution that urges Member States to conduct “impartial, speedy and effective investigations” of journalist murders—the perpetrators are never brought to justice. Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, these murders are often associated with sophisticated crime syndicates that leave few traces for investigators to follow, and an effective investigation would require significant resources and expertise beyond the capacity of many governments. (In some cases, such as Caruana Galizia’s murder, assistance from Dutch forensic experts and the FBI enabled local authorities to arrest suspects linked to the attack, but this is not regular practice.) Perhaps more importantly, resolving the murders of journalists who expose public corruption is not always in the interest of government officials, at least when doing so might provide further evidence of the government’s corrupt acts and expose officials implicated in the journalist’s work.

Given these weaknesses, many corrupt officials and associated criminal networks may conclude that killing a journalist before a story is published may be an effective way to eliminate it altogether. Sadly, this is indeed often the case. But not always: One of the striking things about the recent case in Slovakia is the decision of Kuciak’s employer, the news website Aktuality, to publish his unfinished article. And it appears that this decision to publish, not just the murders themselves, contributed to the massive public outcry and political backlash that has already forced the Prime Minister and several other high-level officials to resign.

Publishing a journalist’s unfinished article is not common practice for newspapers; it was likely done in the Kuciak case because the investigation was almost finished. Usually newspapers are hesitant to publish due to fear of defamation lawsuits, which are a drain on the publication’s resources and reputation. So-called SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) are filed in jurisdictions with strong defamation laws in order to intimidate journalists and media outlets, and prevent them from publishing certain articles. Some members of the European Parliament have been pushing the European Commission to protect investigative journalism by adopting anti-SLAPP measures.

Another reform measure, which hasn’t yet been part of the conversation, would be to create a special exception to defamation laws that would apply when a media outlet publishes a story, on a matter of public concern, by a journalist who was murdered before the story was complete. In other words, countries should enact a “safe harbor” from the ordinary operation of defamation laws in these special circumstances—one that would allow for the expedient dismissal of defamation suits against media outlets that publish the incomplete work of a murdered journalist.

Creating such a safe harbor would have a number of important advantages, and only very limited downsides:  Continue reading

Can a Corporate Settlement that Names Names Be Grounds for a Defamation Suit?

A running theme in discussions—and criticisms—of government settlements with corporations in foreign bribery cases is the failure to focus adequately on individuals. Most commonly, this criticism emphasizes the alleged failure of the “supply-side” enforcers (e.g., the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the U.K. Serious Fraud Office (SFO), etc.) to bring charges against the individual corporate officers and employees responsible for the illegal conduct. Additionally, though, some—including some contributors to this blog (see here and here)—have emphasized that settlements with supply-side enforcers should contain enough information on the illegal transactions that enforcement authorities in the demand-side countries (that is, the countries whose public officials took the bribes) can go after individuals under their jurisdiction. Such individuals would include, most obviously, the government officials who took the bribes, but might also include third-party intermediaries and other local agents over whom the supply-side enforcers lack jurisdiction.

The idea that the public documents in these settlement agreements ought to include a detailed discussion of the transactions, including the identities of the individuals involved, sounds like a good idea. Indeed, I think it generally is a good idea (though I confess I haven’t thought through the issue carefully). But recent news reports out of Tanzania last week highlight a potential pitfall that I confess I hadn’t previously considered: The individuals named as wrongdoers in corporate settlement agreements might sue. Are such suits viable? I have no idea. But the problem is worth considering.

Let me first lay out a brief synopsis of the Tanzania case, and then offer a few under-informed speculations about what this all means. Continue reading

Does Singapore Deserve Its Squeaky-Clean Reputation?

With the passing of Singapore’s former Prime Minister and elder statesman Lee Kwan Yew last March, there has been a lot of discussion and reflection on his legacy. One aspect of that legacy that has been much celebrated, even among his detractors, has been Singapore’s success in reducing corruption. Indeed, in virtually every international survey or ranking of countries’ corruption levels, Singapore comes out very well. In Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) rankings, for example, Singapore scores 84 out of 100, perceived as the 7th-least corrupt country in the world, and the least corrupt in the Asia. In TI’s most recent Bribe Payers Index (BPI), from 2011, which ranks exporting countries according to their firms’ perceived propensity to pay bribes abroad, Singapore scores 8.3/10, ranked 8th out of 28 countries (in a tie with the United Kingdom). And the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) 2012 evaluation of Singapore’s anti-money laundering system gave the country generally high marks (though with some areas of concern). Singapore is widely touted as a major anticorruption success story (see, for instance, the laudatory introduction to this New Yorker piece) and a model for other countries to follow.

But is this squeaky-clean reputation fully justified? It seems true enough that, from the perspective of the average citizen or firm (whether domestic or foreign), bribery and other forms of petty corruption are relatively uncommon (though not unheard of) in Singapore. And although there have been a number of embarrassing corruption scandals in Singapore in recent years — including the former head of Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (the CPIB) embezzling funds from the agency and a former senior police official dismissed for receiving sexual favors in return for influencing government procurement decisions — all countries have incidents of this sort, and in Singapore they seem rather less frequent and less egregious than most other countries, particularly in Asia. Yet I’ve heard many experts on corruption in the Asia-Pacific region grumble–usually off the record–that Singapore is not nearly as “clean” as its reputation suggests.

There are two major complaints about serious corruption in Singapore: Continue reading