Following the shoddy attempt by Malaysia’s PAS party to bolster their election campaign by suing Sarawak Report in London, this platform has joined many others in seeking to open the eyes of the British government to the pernicious effects of the abuse of libel law to silence public comment and free speech by journalists.
The Hadi suit was just one of numerous attempts made by often highly corrupt political actors and wealthy businessmen to bully Sarawak Report to prevent the reporting of information in the public interest. The same tactics have been employed through Britain’s lucrative defamation law business against anyone seeking to expose the criminally wealthy.
As Sarawak Report has often pointed out, in the same way that greedy bankers, accountants and off-shore company managers have enabled wealthy criminals and kleptocrats to launder their illegal cash around the globe, these law firms have developed a comprehensive business to help launder the reputations of the self-same crooks – funded by the illegal cash.
Defamation law firms have evolved networks working together with PR companies and corporate investigators, and too often through them hackers and private thugs, to bully anyone seeking to call these so-called Ultra High Net Worth clients to account. Some have even exploited the legal privilege between a law firm and its client to help funnel and justify payments that banks would not have made for such services on behalf of tainted individuals such as Jho Low.
This week the UK Department of Justice has at last responded with a call to action and a promise to embark on a consultation exercise with a view to fast-tracking legislation to curb the abuse.
A government press release has articulated the level of official concern at the scale of abuse that has taken place and the threat it presents to the rule of law and democratic freedoms. According to the official statement released by the minister for justice and deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab:
These lawsuits typically involve wealthy people or large businesses using the threat of endless legal action and associated costs to pressure their opponents under defamation and privacy laws. This tactic is increasingly being used to intimidate journalists, authors and campaigners to stifle legitimate criticism and prevent the publication of critical stories and books.
The Government is now seeking views on a range of proposals which will be introduced as soon as possible. These could include amending the Defamation Act 2013 to strengthen the ‘public interest defence’ which protects people who publish private information from being sued if it was done for the public good.
Ministers are also considering capping the costs that claimants can recover with the aim of stopping the super-rich, such as Russian oligarchs, from ‘weaponising’ the high cost of litigation to stifle free speech. Changes could also introduce a specific requirement for claimants to prove ‘Actual Malice’ by a defendant in libel cases in order to deter spurious claims.
Just for good measure the British prime minister (himself a journalist) threw in his support referring to the term ‘lawfare’ to describe the campaigns waged against public interest journalism by the super-rich:
“The ability of a free press to hold the powerful to account is fundamental to our democracy and as a former journalist I am determined we must never allow criticism to be silenced. For the oligarchs and super-rich who can afford these sky-high costs the threat of legal action has become a new kind of lawfare. We must put a stop to its chilling effect.”
The move to action by the government has undoubtedly been spurred by the focus on oligarchs, who have been notorious exploiters of Britain’s litigant friendly libel laws, since the invasion of Ukraine. However, it follows a growing campaign against these so-called SLAPP cases. Susan Coughtrie, co-chair of the UK anti-SLAPP coalition and Project Director at the Foreign Policy Centre celebrated the development:
“The consultation launched by Dominic Raab yesterday is certainly an encouraging step in the right direction because it is not just looking for further information on the problem, but also seeking input on proposals for legislative and regulatory reform. This means the topic of SLAPP is squarely on the Government agenda and they have expressed intent to act.
The recent war in Ukraine has clearly been a catalyst, however it’s important that SLAPPs are not only viewed within the frame of Russian kleptocracy. the Government must ensure measures to combat this issue are sufficiently robust and effective, to prevent intimidation and SLAPPs from being utilised to shut down discussion on any matters of public interest moving forward.” [Foreign Policy Centre]
Indeed, Sarawak Report has been threatened by a whole range of wealthy litigants from Malaysia, to America and the Gulf, including Sarawak’s Taib Mahmud and his family, Riza Aziz, Jho Low, individuals associated with the oil firm PetroSaudi and the Hakkasan boss Neil Moffat. These were all in the course of seeking to silence reporting that has been vindicated as true and in the public interest.
Frequently, the conduct of the litigant lawyers has been reprehensible in these cases including the peddling of defamation to third parties and making illegal attempts at blackmail. Litigation has been accompanied by aggressive PR attacks and trolling on social media, which as has been illustrated in the case of Jho Low has been orchestrated through the law firms who actually hire these services as part of their ‘360º reputation management’.
Until now the Solicitors Regulatory Authority has largely ignored the problem of this abuse by certain law firms, however it too has now been prompted to act. According to the statement new behaviour guidelines have been issued that should give journalists better redress against aggressive and vexatious treatment by lawyers if properly implemented:
The Solicitors Regulation Authority has already issued new guidance on conduct in disputes, identifying SLAPPs as an example of ‘pursuing litigation for improper purposes’ and reminding solicitors of their duty to report misconduct.
Britain’s outdated defamation laws which have permitted this harassment have sadly been inherited by all Commonwealth countries who share its system of Common Law, making these planned reforms a significant example for countries like Malaysia.
For now, the already favourable bias towards defamation litigants that has made the UK notorious as the libel capital of the world, militates even further against press freedoms in more authoritarian countries – Malaysia is amongst the worst.
Just last year the Malaysian courts even extended the right to sue to public institutions such as state governments. The leader of Sarawak’s DAP now finds himself being sued by the state government for doing his job and asking what has happened to huge sums of money that had evaporated unaccounted for from the annual budget.
Sarawak Report has likewise been sued by public officials for reporting matters of public concern. Defamation and libel laws have been tightened and extended to make them even worse than those of the UK through innovations such as the multi-media act and fake news laws.
In short, Britain’s journalists and politicians have had enough of this abuse, but in Malaysia the problem is exponentially worse. Reformers should watch the developments in the UK and elsewhere in the pushback against SLAPP with a view to also implementing desperately needed improvements in KL.