The increasing legal intimidation of journalists worldwide is highlighted by WAN-IFRA’s new World Press Trends Outlook. A case before South African courts right now, brought by former President Jacob Zuma against News24 journalist Karyn Maughan, illustrates the efforts those in power will go to to silence and intimidate. 

“Its impact goes well beyond the legal process and poses a threat not just  to Ms Maughan, but has resulted in a chilling of freedom of expression more broadly. Other journalists have told us how courts are refusing access to public records citing fears of being punished and criminally charged.”
– William Bird, Media Monitoring Africa

WAN-IFRA’s new World Press Trends Outlook 2022-2023 outlines many challenges facing the media industry, including “increasing threats designed to silence and intimidate the press targeting individual journalists, pressuring editorial independence, and undermining the business operations of news organisations worldwide”. 

The report is based on a survey of publisher’s determination of risks – and legal harassment is highlighted as a particular, and increasing problem.

“Libel and SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) cases drain immense resources and time from even the most well funded news organisations, with the risk of criminal prosecution still a reality across numerous jurisdictions. Even the mere prospect of facing costly and lengthy legal proceedings can be enough to bury a story.” 

This is playing out in South Africa, where former President Jacob Zuma, renowned for persistent litigation, is personally prosecuting News24’s political journalist Karyn Maughan and Billy Downer, lead state prosecutor in the criminal corruption case against Zuma related to a 1999 arms deal.

Zuma’s civil case against the two was instituted, after the National Prosecuting Authority declined to prosecute, citing the case as meritless. Last week, Maughan and Downer brought applications to have the summonses they’ve been served, reviewed and set aside. Judgement in the case was reserved.

South African l media organisations have come out strongly in support of Maughan, with members of South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) protesting outside court during proceedings. SANEF, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), and the Campaign for Free Expression all joined the case as amici curiae (friends of the court), and asked the court to consider animosity directed at women.

“Campaign for Free Expression (CFE) has no doubt that former president Jacob Zuma’s action against journalist Karyn Maughan is a SLAPP suit, taken not in the pursuit of justice but to harass and intimidate a journalist covering his corruption trial,” maintains Anton Harber, Executive Director, Campaign for Free Expression.

“Karyn is being persecuted for doing her work as a reporter; no more, no less,” he adds, pointing to Zuma’s pattern of anti-media behaviour: “When in office, he instituted as many as 15 defamation cases against reporters, cartoonists, art galleries and others. The community of journalists sees the case against Karyn as an attack on the practice of journalism and in particular court reporting – and this is why we have rallied behind her.”

Qaanitah Hunter, Assistant Editor at News24 and Secretary General for the South African Editors Forum (SANEF), and has been vocal in her support of her colleague, and claims the case is “an effort to intimidate and to punish her” for her journalism.

“The reason I publicly stand with her, and why News24 has taken the decision to stand by her in (a) not removing her from reporting on the case and (b) a public showing of support, is to not give in to those intimidation tactics of the former president.

“In the former president’s court papers, he calls her a racist bigot, which is a personal attack. This private prosecution is an effort to send a chilling threat to the industry. And it is a continuation of the attacks we’ve seen on female journalists – cyber misogyny is a massive issue in South Africa; it has become the new form of targeted harassment.”

WATCH: Zuma Private Prosecution | SANEF backs Karyn Maughan

Reggy Moalusi, Executive Director of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), confirms that the organisation will continue to support the call for dismissal of the case, and rally for Maughan’s support. “Media freedom is paramount to journalists’ work, and any effort to intimidate or threaten them with criminal charges should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. 

“We will continue to call on every organisation that supports Karyn not to tire and continue the fight to have these charges dropped. Women journalists in South Africa continue to face online bullying, intimidation, and threats, including Karyn, such should not be condoned. The case against Karyn, if successful, is in  danger of setting legal precedent that would have huge consequences in impeding how journalists should do their work.” 

William Bird, Director, Media Monitoring Africa, illustrates just how far-reaching the impact of this Slapp suit stretches: “It is clearly not just a form of Slapp suit and isn’t just malicious – it has also served to legitimise an out-pouring of online abuse against Ms Maughan.

“While the case is therefore about an alleged criminal action: Its impact goes well beyond the legal process and poses a threat not just  to Ms Maughan , but has resulted in a chilling of freedom of expression more broadly. Other journalists have told us how courts are refusing access to public records citing fears of being punished and criminally charged.

“While Ms Maughan has showed incredible strength, courage and tenacity by continuing to report the simple reality is that it should be fundamentally unacceptable that any journalist should be expected to keep doing their job under such abusive circumstances.”

WAN-IFRA’s World Press Trends Report 2022-2023 is an annual  analysis based on an online survey distributed to industry leaders, and features insights from 167 news executives from 62 countries. WAN-IFRA Members can download the full report here

Join the World Association of New Publishers here 

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