The government has refused to accept a proposed change in the law to stop super-rich oligarchs from using their fortunes to exploit British courts to intimidate and silence investigative journalists.
Tom Tugendhat, the minister of state for security, on Thursday refused to accept an amendment to the economic crime bill that would have given judges the power to dismiss legal cases brought against journalists if they found such cases to be strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps) designed to chill public-interest journalism.
A cross-party coalition of MPs has been calling for the change in the law to “prevent the use of court processes to silence investigative journalists” with the threat of multimillion-pound legal costs, following a rash of Slapps seeking to “silence investigative journalists”.
Liam Byrne, the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, said: “It is simply a scandal that English courts, once renowned as sanctuaries of justice, are now infamous as arenas of silence where some of the richest people on Earth are trying to silence journalists who are simply doing their job, hunting for the truth exposing fraud, money laundering and sanction busting.
“We have become a global centre for lawfare against people who are being so courageous and so brave in trying to bring crime to the public attention.”
Byrne said there had been so many Slapps launched recently that the “playbook” of oligarchs was becoming clear. “First the company or the oligarch will try to target an individual journalist rather than the organisation they work for, because frankly they know they can intimidate the individual,” he told parliament. “Then they will file the most ludicrously exaggerated claims.”
He said oligarchs were abusing the UK courts because they were not interested in winning the cases they brought. “All they’re interested in doing is racking up as much cost as possible to damage the poorer party, then they go to enormous lengths to try to intimidate the individual.”
Byrne told parliament that examples of Slapps included Roman Abramovich suing the journalist Catherine Belton over her book Putin’s People, and the Kazakh mining firm ENRC suing the FT journalist Tom Burgis over his book about “dirty money”. The journalists eventually won their cases, he said, “but only after months of court proceedings facing the risk of a fortune in legal costs”.
He also raised the issue of libel claims lodged in August against four publishers of investigative reports into allegations about the assets of a fund named after the former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“It is simply outrageous that a country that prides itself as the home of free speech now is home to courts being used to silence journalists,” Byrne said.
Tugendhat said he agreed the law needed to be reformed to tackle the threat of Slapps to public interest journalism, but it was not appropriate to add the amendment to the economic crime bill.
“The way to address this is not to treat this simply as an economic problem; it isn’t,” he said. “It is not just a crime that affects movement of dirty money. It is a crime that actually is about freedom of speech and indeed about the access to justice.”
Tugendhat said the problem was more of an issue for the Ministry of Justice, and it would work on a piece of “anti-Slapps legislation” that addressed the whole problem.