By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, May 12 2023 (IPS)
The world’s news media — both under authoritarian regimes and democratic governments– continue to come under relentless attacks and political harassment.
“Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy and justice. It gives all of us the facts we need to shape opinions and speak truth to power. But in every corner of the world, freedom of the press is under attack,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on World Press Freedom Day May 3.
Journalists and media workers, he said, are directly targeted on and offline as they carry out their vital work. They are routinely harassed, intimidated, detained and imprisoned.
At least 67 media workers were killed in 2022 — a 50 per cent increase over the previous year. Nearly three quarters of women journalists have experienced violence online, and one in four have been threatened physically, according to the UN.
But there is also an increase in non-physical attacks, including defamation lawsuits against media organizations challenging their legitimate right to free expression.
The Washington-based US Agency for International Development (USAID) last week launched Reporters Shield, a new membership program that protects journalists around the world– who report in the public interest– from defamation lawsuits and legal threats.
Established as a U.S.-based nonprofit organization by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, Reporters Shield has been described as “a first-of-its-kind global program that defends investigative reporting around the world from legal threats meant to silence critical voices”.
USAID, which has a long history of fostering the growth of independent media across the world, plans to work with Congress to contribute up to $9 million in seed funding for this groundbreaking new program to support media outside the United States, according to a May 2 press release.
In a statement released last week, USAID said investigative journalists and civil society organizations reporting in the public interest are increasingly facing lawsuits that aim to harass and silence them by burdening them with the cost and time of a legal defense until they abandon their stories or go out of business entirely.
Reporters Shield will help to reduce these risks through training and pre-publication review, as well as funding legal representation to fight lawsuits and other legal actions meant to intimidate and financially burden reporters.
In order to keep the program sustainable, member organizations participating in Reporters Shield will pay reasonable annual fees that are based on a variation of factors, including location of the outlet and how many stories they produce a year.
“To be considered for membership in Reporters Shield, an organization must be legally registered and focus primarily in news, public interest, and/or investigative reporting; publish reporting in print and/or online; have non-profit status or transparent ownership; be independent from political, commercial, or other undue influence or interference; and have editorial independence and adhere to professional editorial standards”.
Reporters Shield is accepting applications worldwide and will be reviewing them in a phased approach, with some regions receiving benefits in the coming months, and others added later this year and in 2024.
Interested organizations can find more information and apply for membership by visiting reporters-shield.org.
The development of Reporters Shield has been supported by the generous pro bono legal support of the law firms of Proskauer, Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer PC, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP.
Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations (CSOs), told IPS “these are hard times for media freedoms due to disinformation and attacks on civic space spurred by deepening authoritarianism, denigration of democracy through populism and consolidation of wealth by oligarchs”.
Uncovering serious human rights violations and high-level corruption, he pointed out, is becoming increasingly dangerous and costly for investigative journalists and civil society activists.
When few companies are ready to sign the Anti- Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) pledge and crafty politicians are busy undermining the independence of judiciaries, this initiative comes at a critical time,” he declared.
According to the Anti-SLAPP pledge by Global Citizen, an international education and advocacy organization, strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, are not a legitimate business strategy for companies.
“The private sector thrives in functioning democratic societies, where the right to freedom of expression is a respected bedrock principle and where everyone can express their views without fear of intimidation or reprisal”.
“Lawsuits and legal tactics meant to silence civil organizations and human rights defenders aren’t just bad for societies, they’re also damaging to companies. When companies stifle free expression, they limit their ability to manage risk related to their operations and global supply chains.”
As companies that are committed to operating in societies where people are able to exercise fundamental rights, said Global Citizen, “we pledge to: define Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, as both lawsuits and legal tactics that are designed to silence critics and abridge citizens’ ability to exercise fundamental rights.”
— Refrain from engaging in SLAPPs against human rights and environmental defenders and civil society organizations that support affected rights-holders.
— Recognize the critical role that civil society organizations and human rights defenders play in creating a profitable enabling environment for the private sector.
— Encourage partners and suppliers within our value chain to refrain from engaging in SLAPPs to silence legitimate activism.
IPS UN Bureau Report