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Media figures say anti-SLAPPs bill is flawed

More than 60 editors, lawyers, journalists, academics and experts call for the Anti-SLAPP Bill to be amended to ensure it can protect everyone speaking out in the public interest.

Media figures say anti-SLAPPs bill is flawed
Katharine Viner: "We welcome the work to get a workable anti-SLAPP law in place, with these small changes being vital to making that happen."

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general; secretary joined more than sixty editors, journalists, writers, publishers, academics, and experts in writing to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk KC MP calling on the government to support amendments to the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill.

The NUJ says signatories include the editors of DMG Media, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times and The Sunday Times, Private Eye, and The Economist. The letter said: “We are closer than ever to establishing a standalone anti-SLAPP law, but we cannot let its proximity stop us from ensuring the Bill does what it is intended to: protecting public interest speech from being silenced by SLAPPs.”

The signatories are calling on the government to address the fundamental flaw at the centre of the Bill’s early dismissal mechanism that requires a court to make a subjective judgement as to the intent of a SLAPP claimant in order to determine whether the legal action can be identified as a SLAPP. They echo concerns raised by the Law Society and MPs, that identifying a claimant’s intent “is a notoriously difficult, time-intensive, expensive and uncertain process that would undermine the effective operation of the protections the law provides.”

The NUJ says it has written separately to Alex Chalk adding that the definition of “public interest" in the bill also needs amening to ensure “required protections for journalists and an end to the pursuit of improper litigation to silence and supress reporting in the public interest”.

The signatories highlight concerns that deficiencies of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act (ECCTA) were previously made clear to the government, but yet have been replicated in full in the Anti-SLAPP Bill.

“If enacted in its current form, the Bill risks becoming an ineffective, inaccessible, and ultimately redundant legal instrument,” the letter said. “By making a small but important amendment, we can ensure courts and judges are able to make timely, consistent and evidence-based determinations of SLAPP cases before legal costs have accrued.”

The signatories also called for the definition of public interest in the Bill to be refined in order to further strengthen the legislation.

“We believe the current definition of public interest could introduce unnecessary uncertainty, which must be avoided for this Bill to be effective. An Anti-SLAPP Law must be accessible, simple and trusted by public watchdogs to effectively protect free expression.”

Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief, The Guardian said: "SLAPPs threaten free speech and a free press by enabling those with deep pockets to harass, intimidate and exhaust critics with the goal of deterring public interest journalism. We welcome the work to get a workable anti-SLAPP law in place, with these small changes being vital to making that happen."

Catherine Belton, international investigative reporter, Washington Post, Author, Putin’s People, said: "It's really important that after all the crusading work by NGOs and MPs, journalists don't end up with a law that is ultimately ineffective or worse, counterproductive, in combating SLAPPs. In its current form, the proposed legislation would not improve the situation for any journalist and instead more likely strengthen any claimant's hand, as it will be near impossible to prove a claimant's intent. This law must be urgently amended, otherwise we risk shooting ourselves in the foot."

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