New research exposes global trends in legal attacks facing journalists

by The Foundation
Thursday, 20 April 2023 08:58 GMT

New research on 'Weaponising the Law: Attacks on Media Freedom' has been published today by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

The report is the first of its kind to bring together both qualitative and quantitative data to build a cohesive global overview of prevalent trends in the weaponisation of the law against journalists.   

Press freedom experts Joel Simon and Carlos Lauría and legal expert Ona Flores undertook a systematic review of national legislation, government regulations and judicial decisions, as well as reports by media and civil society groups. Their research was enhanced with the insights of nearly 500 members of the Foundation’s extensive network of journalists, who responded to a survey on their lived experiences of the most serious legal threats facing independent press. Their accounts, alongside the perspectives of 37 renowned media freedom experts, laid bare the surging tide of attacks on journalists around the world and identified the key legal tactics commonly deployed by perpetrators. 

While the rule of law serves to protect free expression, press freedom and the rights of journalists around the world, legal attacks – often known as ‘lawfare’ - are increasingly levied against journalists in efforts to compromise their safety, silence public interest reporting and erode trust in journalism. Amplified by recent events such as the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, tactics are used in myriad ways by different players to criminalise media practitioners in order to control narratives, suppress scrutiny and to seize power. 

Almost half (47.6%) of respondents from the Foundation’s network, representing 106 countries, said that they or their media organisation were facing legal threats, illustrating the sheer scale of this war on independent journalism. 

The report identifies and analyses eight critical legal threats to journalists around the world, illustrated with notable global case studies, and offers 10 key recommendations for tangible action to curb negative legislative trends, expand legal support and enhance cross-sector collaboration. 

The key threats are: 

  1. Defamation and insult: misused to prevent open public debate and shield powerful individuals from legitimate criticism.

  2. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs): by definition, unfounded and lack merit. Their primary objective is to silence critical voices through harassment, intimidation and expensive legal proceedings. 

  3. Espionage, treason and foreign influence: national security laws which can be used to sanction freedom of expression and curtail media freedom. 

  4. Cyber libel and other cybercrime provisions: much-abused sweeping offences in authoritarian regimes and backsliding democracies, used to target independent and critical journalism. 

  5. Fake news: using the pretext of restricting the spread of false information, numerous countries are leveraging “fake news” laws to censor critical reporting. 

  6. Counter-terrorism and anti-extremism: In the last few years, many countries have increased penalties and created new vaguely-worded terrorism or extremism offences that are used to crack down on dissent. 

  7. Financial crimes: can result in long-term imprisonment, heavy fines or unfounded tax bills, which can bankrupt media and independent journalists. 

  8. Lese majeste, desacato laws and seditious libel: carry the threat of prison or fines for those who criticise or report on public officials. The fear of criminal sanctions necessarily discourages citizens from expressing their opinions on issues of public interest. 

Commenting on the report, Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said: 

“Around the world, cases of 'lawfare’ against journalists are rising exponentially as tactics to control the free flow of information have taken new and sinister forms. The shocking number of journalists who responded to our survey with personal experience of legal attacks indicates that this is a matter of extreme concern. When the law is weaponised to intimidate, silence and discredit independent media, our democratic values are eroded.  

“Through this report and our many other initiatives, the Foundation leverages its legacy of media and legal expertise to facilitate a greater understanding of threats to media freedom – including the weaponisation of the law. I believe that this report will help empower practitioners committed to defending media freedom to better understand and effectively navigate these threats, and to respond accordingly. 

Joel Simon, report author and Director of Journalism Protection Initiative, Craig Newmark School of Journalism, said: 

“For the first time in this report, we classify the full range of legal threats to media freedom based on input from leading experts and journalists on the front lines. We highlight the dramatic ways in which journalists experience legal repression. We provide a roadmap for action, strategies that can be used to ensure that law is used to protect journalists, not repress them. We hope to draw attention to the mounting abuses, and also inform and inspire policy makers, activists, and journalists themselves who are meeting the challenge.” 

The report will be launched with a panel discussion hosted at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy at 4pm BST (5pm CEST) – available via livestream during and after the event. Antonio Zappulla and Joel Simon will present the key findings and the Foundation’s Director of Media Freedom Programmes, Will Church, will then lead a discussion with media defence experts including Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji and Jodie Ginsberg, President of the Committee to Protect Journalists, to shed light on the most serious, and often lesser-known legal threats affecting media freedom. 


This report is one of many initiatives spearheaded by the Thomson Reuters Foundation that leverages its legal expertise to support journalists and independent media outlets. The Foundation’s global pro bono legal service, TrustLaw, has facilitated the production of a suite of practical legal tools to help journalists understand their rights and protections, and navigate new and unfamiliar laws. More information about the Foundation’s legal resources for journalists can be found on the report website.

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