This week the UK Ministry of Justice and the legal regulator, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA), signalled major support for tighter regulations on law firms and for tougher legislation to control abusive litigation against the media and against freedom of speech.
On Tuesday at the second Anti-SLAPP Conference in London the SRA published a public warning and new guide-lines for law firms who pursue actions against journalists, whilst Justice Minister Mike Freer addressed the conference to promise urgent legislation to prevent abusive law suits designed to silence journalists and NGOs.
The action comes just one year after a group of journalists and civil society organisations joined forces to highlight the growing problem of so-called SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) and what has become known as London’s ‘Reputation Management’ industry, spearheaded by a growing body of specialist law firms working with selected PR companies, private investigations outfits and more shadowy entities who collaborate to deter and intimidate the media from speaking about powerful and often questionably wealthy clients.
The modus operandi is to blackmail targets into retractions and silence against the threat of having to spend huge sums of money to defend themselves against often frivolous legal complaints for alleged defamation, invasions of privacy, copyright infringements or data violations. At the same time aggressive defamation, surveillance and hacking operations are more often than not launched against the defendants themselves.
In the course of exposing the 1MDB scandal and other Malaysian corruption issues over the past ten years the editor of Sarawak Report has been the target of dozens of such operations commissioned by clients from Malaysia and beyond. These included a major multi-million ringgit law suit lodged in the London High Court by the PAS Islamic Party president, Hadi Awang in 2018.
As one defence lawyer observed this week the Hadi case against Sarawak Report was in their view “the paradigm SLAPP”:
“There were so many red flags: the letter of claim being sent on behalf of PAS, information being shared with online trolls, Hadi not being named in the article, witness intimidation, very low reader numbers in England & Wales, the list goes on… If anything like the model law had been implemented in 2017 you would undoubtedly have applied to dismiss the claim as a SLAPP”
Indeed, having withdrawn his case following GE14, Hadi Awang publicly acknowledged that he had only pursued it for party political purposes during that election and said the alleged slur on his reputation was no longer worth removing once the election was out of the way.
After all, the article in question did not even refer to him or name him personally, whilst it did on the other hand raise the public interest concern (later verified time and again) that PAS was secretly working in alliance with Najib and receiving election funding from UMNO.
Such spurious cases have become a recognised menace against free speech and democracy and Sarawak Report together with a raft of top media organisations and human rights groups this week signed support for a model law to kick out these SLAPP suits before they start burdening defendants with unfair costs. The government has agreed to look at the recommendations and bring in its own version of such a law, following several high profile cases where kleptocrats and Putin’s oligarchs have cost publishers and journalists millions for exposing their corruption.
It means that, in future, attempts to bully entities like Sarawak Report from highlighting issues such as 1MDB and other forms of kleptocracy in Malaysia will find themselves facing early moves for dismissal on the grounds of public interest.
Trigger-happy defamation lawyers in Malaysia should also take note because the reforms will set new standards and new precedents that will inform judges in KL as well.