Federal Government Announces Legal Defense Fund For Journalists Facing Bogus Defamation Lawsuits From Government Officials

from the shutting-down-international-bullies dept

While we wait for Congress to get around to protecting journalists, critics, and others facing bogus defamation lawsuits with a federal anti-SLAPP law, it’s good to know at least one federal agency is doing something to protect journalists from litigation deployed solely to silence them.

In comments to a conference at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Samantha Power, said the federal government is creating a legal defense fund to protect journalists all over the world from bogus defamation lawsuits filed by subjects of news coverage and/or targets of criticism.

Today, I’m pleased to announce an initiative that responds to a request from a group of independent journalists I met with during my very first week at USAID. It turns out that autocrats and oligarchs often employ a crude but effective tactic to kill stories they don’t like: they sue reporters until those reporters abandon stories or go out of business.

As a result, we are launching a global Defamation Defense Fund to protect journalists against lawsuits that are designed to deter them from doing their work. We will offer them courage to survive coverage —excuse me I hope courage as well but they don’t need any courage these journalists—to survive defamation claims or deter autocrats and oligarchs from trying to sue them out of business in the first place. To counter the ever-changing threats to democracy, because they’re evolving, we depend on this sort of innovation.

The speech, while long, was a little light on details. Completely light, actually. There are no more details on the planned “Defamation Defense Fund” on USAID’s site or anywhere else at the moment. It’s unclear how the fund will determine which lawsuits are frivolous enough to warrant access to the legal defense fund or which countries’ journalists will be able to avail themselves of this assistance. I mean, in some countries, suing journalists for defamation is pretty much the national pastime. And some governments will be extremely unhappy one of their censorial weapons of choice is being blunted by US intervention.

There’s also no indication American journalists will be able to use this when US-based authoritarians decide to intimidate journalists with frivolous lawsuits. That remains a problem in this country despite our rather robust speech protections. Hassling someone into misery (if not poverty) only requires a small investment ($402 at the federal level) from people (including public servants) who don’t like to be publicly criticized. Until a federal anti-SLAPP law is put in place, small-a authoritarians are free to shop around for venues without robust anti-SLAPP protections — and there are several of those still remaining in the United States.

But this is a timely announcement and potentially good news for journalists like the Guardian’s Lorenzo Tondo, who has been sued for a second time by Italian prosecutor Calogero Ferrara over Tondo’s coverage of the prosecutor’s questionable actions. Then there are the journalists being sued by the aggrieved governments of entire countries that claim they’ve never misused spyware sold to them by NSO Group to target religious leaders, activists, and… journalists. And with new reporting on financial wrongdoing implicating government officials all over the world, more lawsuits bogusly claiming libel are likely on their way. Hopefully, this fund will also act as a deterrent to future lawsuits, putting would-be plaintiffs on notice that the US government will now be backing their critics.

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Comments on “Federal Government Announces Legal Defense Fund For Journalists Facing Bogus Defamation Lawsuits From Government Officials”

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5 Comments
James Burkhardt (profile) says:

The level of understated disinfo about the use of lawsuits to silence journalists is somewhat staggering. Like look at this line in the first quote here:

Today, I’m pleased to announce an initiative that responds to a request from a group of independent journalists I met with during my very first week at USAID. It turns out that autocrats and oligarchs often employ a crude but effective tactic to kill stories they don’t like: they sue reporters until those reporters abandon stories or go out of business.

The way Power phrases this here suggests this is new, something unknown. Rather than an obvious tactic so well known the US has responded to the threat of censorous lawsuits by implementing the SPEECH Act as well as a slew of state level Anti-SLAPP laws.

The honest phrasing would be to say "As legislators in the US have noticed and addressed with the SPEECH ACT….". Its still spin, but I feel its much less obvious about it. I guess it might expose the lack of federal Anti-SLAPP legislation too much, or possibly the abuse of the legal system enjoyed by the political elite in the US, but I still feel like there was a way to spin this that didn’t imply censorious lawsuits didn’t exist in America.

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