Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) are a new form of attack on journalists. Ways of attacking journalists are no longer just physical, but they include various forms of harassment that often take the form of lawsuits that drain the human and financial capacities of media houses and journalists.
Because of this type of attack, today's journalism is unthinkable without a legal team that will provide support in the process of creating and verifying information, as well as protection and potential lawsuits that may follow the publication of investigative stories. Lawsuits are often unfounded, but they are a means of harassment and attempts to silence the media from reporting on topics of public interest. But lengthy court processes lead to the draining of the media's capacity.
That is why support to the media in this process is very important, and funds to cover legal and court costs greatly facilitate the daily work of the media and enable them to continue doing what they do - public interest reporting, regardless of lawsuits.
Recently, USAID launched a program called Reporters Shield, which protects investigative journalists and civil society activists by providing liability coverage to cover the costs of defending against defamation, insult and other lawsuits aimed at silencing their reporting.
“SLAPPs are filed to financially exhaust journalists and media. That’s why financial support is very important. Reporters Shield means journalists won’t have to worry if they will be able to pay lawyers, court costs, and other expenses.”- said Bojana Jovanović, deputy editor-in-chief of the Crime and Corruption Research Network - KRIK.
On the occasion of the launch of this important program, which is definitely very necessary for the media in the Western Balkans, taking into account that they deal with various attempts to silence and limit media reporting every day, we spoke with Peter Noorlander, the director of the Reporters Shield start-up program.
Balkansmedia: What is the Reporters Shield program? Can you give us more information about the idea behind the program? How is it different from a regular legal support worldwide?
Reporters Shield is a membership program, a membership program that defends investigative reporting around the world from legal threats. The program is for print/online media outlets and NGOs that report in the public interest. Reporters Shield will identify qualified lawyers to respond to legal threats and lawsuits and pay for legal representation up to a pre-agreed limit, which depends on the country where the publication is based.
The idea arose from the work of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. They get a large number of legal claims and threats for their reporting and defending themselves against these claims is a huge drain on their resources. They are aware that many other investigative journalism outlets suffer from the same problem, it affects the entire sector. Therefore they worked with lawyers from the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, with assistance and support from insurance specialists, to develop Reporters Shield.
It is different from existing legal support mechanisms because it is membership-based and because it can offer assistance up to a higher financial limit - up to $500,000 in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom.
Balkansmedia: For whom is the program designed, and which types of organizations could benefit the most from it? It is membership based. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Application for membership is rolled out in phases? What are the general criteria for acceptance, how long does the process take and when does it become active?
We are currently open for applications from organizations based in Europe, Central Asia, and the Americas (except for the Caribbean).
Organizations can participate if they:
- are legally registered
- focus primarily on news, public interest, and/or investigative reporting
- publish reporting in print and/or online only
- have non-profit status or transparent ownership
- have editorial independence and adhere to professional editorial standards
- are independent from political, commercial, or other undue influence or interference
- have transparent, professional financial management
- distinguish clearly between opinion and news reporting
We have a process of strict scrutiny for applications and because we have had a large number of applications the process takes at least six weeks.
Balkansmedia: Organizations will be paying an annual membership fee. Are there any differences in pricing when it comes to smaller vs. bigger organizations, their location and in cases of expensive jurisdictions?
The fee depends on the country, the number of reports published and their risk profile, and the turnover of the organization. Once an organization becomes a member they will have access to pre-publication legal review for high-risk publications (this is limited to stories that make allegations of improper conduct against someone with a connection to the US, UK, Ireland, or another expensive jurisdiction). They can call on assistance to respond to threats whenever one comes up.
Balkansmedia: Will you consider expanding the membership to freelance journalists?
Right now we are focused on getting the current model up and running. The work of freelancers is covered when they publish through a media outlet that is a member of Reporters Shield.
Balkansmedia: What type of support is available under Reporters Shield? Are there any limits to the support, and are there things and situations the fund can’t cover?
Members get access to legal support to respond to threats/claims that are brought in relation to content published by them. There is a financial limit, the amount of which depends on the country but ranges between US$100,000 and US$500,000. The fund cannot cover prosecutions for allegations that are not clearly connected with reporting, such as allegations of tax evasion.
Balkansmedia: How will trainings for members be organized and what topics will they cover?
Trainings will initially be limited to enable members to recognize potentially high-risk publications.
Below, you can watch a presentation about the Reporters Shield program held by Drew Sullivan, co-founder and publisher of OCCRP, Strengthening Transparency and Accountability Through Investigative Reporting Program (STAIR) Chief of Party, as part of this year's USAID BMAP FORWARD Media Forum.