Weaponising the Law: Attacks on Media Freedom draws on global research carried out by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in 2022, combined with contributions from 37 media freedom experts and the first-hand experience of nearly 500 alumni – representing 106 countries – from the  Thomson Reuters Foundation’s journalism training programmes. 

Released last week by the Foundation in collaboration with the Tow Center, the report also follows a systematic review of national legislation, government regulations and judicial decisions, as well as reports by media and civil society groups.

Weaponising the Law is a first in several respects: first to bring together insights into prevalent trends from reporters on the ground and leading experts; and a first step towards a global overview of the weaponisation of the law against journalists – while offering a springboard into future research.

‘The use of the law as a weapon against independent media has been a favoured tactic of governments the world over
for many years’
– Andrew Heslop

It is also the first of its kind to bring together both qualitative and quantitative data to build a cohesive look at prevalent trends in ‘lawfare’ used against journalists.

According to the report:    

Nearly 50% of respondents, representing 106 countries, said that they or their media organisation were facing legal threats. This illustrates the sheer scale of this war on journalism. 
Eight key legal threats to journalists around the globe were identified and analysed. These range from defamation and insult allegations being levied to suppress scrutiny, to cybercrime and national security laws such as ‘espionage’ or ‘treason’, which are misused to silence and harass journalists reporting on sensitive topics such as organised crime, corruption, human rights issues and conflict. 
The report concludes with a set of 10 recommendations – shaped by the insights of our contributors – for tangible action to curb negative legislative trends, expand legal support and enhance cross-sector collaboration.   

Findings within the report are not surprising: in January, Unesco reported that the number of journalists killed in 2022 rose by 50% from the previous year. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2022 Global Impunity Index, there is no accountability – and little interest from governments in addressing the issue. No one has been punished or held to account for nearly 80% of journalist murders during the last 10 years.

Committee to Protect Journalists: 2022 Global Impunity Index 

“The use of the law as a weapon against independent media has been a favoured tactic of governments the world over for many years,” said Andrew Heslop, WAN-IFRA’s Executive Director for Press Freedom, who contributed to the report. 

“Anecdotally, we know from the WAN-IFRA community the extent to which legal harassment has become such an insidious problem and how these types of attacks increasingly shape the media’s approach to reporting. 

“But having the data to show just how widespread the effects of this are, and to be able to identify recurring and developing trends, is absolutely key. It allows us to better advocate for the correct application of laws and increase journalists’ understanding of how particular laws are used (and misused) – all while increasing pressure on those weaponising the very mechanisms designed to protect journalists and media organisations.”

As threats to independent journalism continue to accelerate, the law is being weaponised around the world to compromise journalists’ safety and silence public interest reporting. 

The physical, emotional and financial consequences are enormous for journalists, who face the risk of going to jail, being bankrupted or repeatedly being dragged into court. Left unchecked, the future of the profession, democracies and free societies are at stake.

Raising awareness of these growing legal threats is critical if they are to be countered. 

Weaponising the Law: Attacks on Media Freedom includes a summary of each legal threat, along with video testimonials from journalists – including 2017 Golden Pen of Freedom laureate  Can Dündar, WAN-IFRA Board member Lina Attalah, and Christopher Acosta – who have been on the receiving end of legal harassment. 

The 10 recommendations – shaped by the experts and journalists surveyed for this report – details strategies and actions on how to support and protect journalists from this abuse.

You can explore the digital version or download the report in full on the Thomson Reuters Foundation website. 

More information on the Foundation’s legal resources for journalists is available here.

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