European Federation of Journalists

United Kingdom: First Anti-SLAPP law adopted

Credits: Niklas Halle'n / AFP

On 26 October 2023, the United Kingdom passed legislation in the British Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, including provisions to fight Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Considered a “landmark moment” by the UK’s Anti-SLAPP Coalition, the adoption of the new measures will guarantee to protect journalists reporting on financial crime and corruption. However, the coalition is calling for a stand-alone anti-SLAPP bill to give equal protection to all those who speak out in the public interest.

Under the Act, which aims to implement reforms to tackle economic crime and improve transparency over corporate entities, the UK will allow courts to dismiss SLAPPs brought against the journalists who cover financial crime and corruption. This means that judges can reject claims before a trial, if they assess it “is or is intended to have the effect of restraining” the right to freedom of speech, or “is intended to cause the defendant harassment, alarm, distress, expense, or any other harm or inconvenience” beyond the normal course of litigation.

These measures are an important step in the defence of freedom of expression and investigative journalism, as SLAPPs are used to intimidate journalists, drain their resources and silence them.

As the Anti-SLAPP coalition pointed out, the UK is “haven” for defamation suits. British courts are often used including by foreigners to bring journalists to court, and by powerful people to shut down investigative reporting in the public interest. An international survey conducted by the Foreign Policy Center in 2020m and quoted in The Guardian showed that journalists reporting about financial crime outside of the UK face as many threats of court action in England as they do in all other European countries and the US combined. Access to UK lawyers is also extremely costly, with a trial costing up to half a million pounds for each of the involved parties.

While welcoming the new measures, the Anti-SLAPP coalition acknowledged that the law falls short of providing universal protection from SLAPPs.

Charlie Holt, European Lead for Global Climate Legal Defence (CliDef) said: “The passage of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill is a welcome first step towards anti-SLAPP protection in the UK. But it is just this: a first step. The new law offers a promising framework for tackling the problem, but is undermined by an excessively restrictive definition of SLAPP – one that, by requiring the court to identify the intent of the filer, introduces an unnecessary element of uncertainty into the process.”

Dalia Nasreddin, UK Campaigns Manager at English PEN insisted that SLAPPs are not only related to economic crime and can relate to any context, such as journalists exposing warlords and survivors of sexual abuse recounting their experience. “It is therefore essential that a standalone anti-SLAPP legislation is promptly introduced,” she stated, while Jessica Ní Mhainín, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Index on Censorship, said that “it is crucial that the passing of these amendments is seen as a stepping stone to addressing SLAPPs – rather than as the end result.”