Stakeholders kick against frivolous lawsuits against journalists, activists

MEDIA stakeholders have kicked against continuous attempts to silence critical voices and media organisations by slamming frivolous lawsuits on them. 

They also proffered solutions to tackle the lawsuits and other attempts to frustrate and intimidate journalists and activists.

The media stakeholders spoke during a Twitter Space organised by The ICIR on Tuesday, June 6, on the theme, ‘SLAPPThemBack: Examining frivolous lawsuit targeted at dissenting voices’.

Speaking during the event, the Executive Director of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (The ICIR), Dayo Aiyetan, explained that Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) “are basically frivolous lawsuits that are filed by the people we (journalists and activists) hold to account”.

Noting that the problem is a global phenomenon, Aiyetan said there are attempts to emasculate the civic space in different countries, including Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, the United States and the United Kingdom.

“And then in African countries, in Nigeria, sometimes hypersensitive governments and regimes attempt to silence dissenting voices. In Nigeria, from the days of the military, even under democratic dispensation since 1999, journalists, advocates, activists and other critical voices have had to contend with arrests, illegal detention and all kind of repression.”

He pointed out the the President Muhammadu Buhari administration fought strenuously to silence critical voices through legislations such as the Cybercrime Act.

“You can fit anything you want into that legislation and use it in silencing your opposition or any kind of dissenting voices,” Aiyetan observed.

“These legal threats include cybercrimes law, fake news laws, espionage laws, defamation and insults laws. Journalists in some countries have been slammed with legal suits for saying something that the regime or the government finds insulting but they also include what we called frivolous lawsuits,” he added.

The ICIR, in a recent survey, found out that out of the 141 respondents (that is 28.4 per cent) made up of media organisations, journalists and civic advocates, about 40 have been sued in the last 12 months. 

Out of the 40 organisations that have been sued in the last one year, some have faced more than three lawsuits in the past year while some have been sued for more than 12 times. 

Of the 141 organisations, 37 or 26.2 per cent are civil society organisations; 31 or 22 per cent are online news media while 20 or 14.2 per cent are newspapers/magazines.

Forty-eight of these organisations (34 per cent) are small organisations of between one to 10 staff members.

Also, some of the organisations stated that the legal threats have had a tremendous effect on the way they carry out their advocacy and operations. 

The way out

Highlighting what media organisations can do to address the issue, the Deputy Director of Journalism Programme at the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), Busola Ajibola, said collaboration and cross checking of investigative reports will protect journalists from frivolous lawsuits.

“In the course of my work over the years, I have come to realise that we underestimate how collaboration can protect us. When perhaps we are doing a story that we know will expose us to abuse or libel cases, then we had better come together and do some forms of cross publications. 

“The second one on my list is that; I think we need to work together with CSOs to put forward a legislative proposal that is aimed at stamping out SLAPP and in doing that we need to have a clear timeline.”

Also, the Founder, Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), Fisayo Soyombo, said he has had conversations with his team on how investigative journalism comes with frivolous lawsuits. But he added that no lawsuit will discourage him and his team.

Speaking on how they get finances to tackle the lawsuits, Soyombo said media houses should cultivate the extra effort in building relationships with legal practitioners who believe in their work.

“But there are times when that option might not be enough because of the cost of prosecuting the case itself, not the legal fees. You can imagine that in one of the lawsuits we had the airline listed one of its witnesses as an aeronautical engineer and then there was someone with a background in forensics. To counter them, we probably need people like that too. Even if your lawyer wants to take on the case for free, those people may not be free and then you need money.”

He added that media houses and journalists need to sit with their funders in solving some legal cases.  

Cybercrime Act should be reviewed

A human right lawyer and principal Inebehe Effiong Chambers, Inibehe Effiong, while speaking on the frivolous nature of some cases slammed against journalists, disclosed that the Cybercrime Act, particularly Section 24, needs to be reviewed.

He added: “Quite sadly, efforts to have that section drop down are so far-fetched from the Federal High Court judgment of justice Muhammed Idris, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeal, but the matter is now at the Supreme Court. We are hoping that the Supreme Court will take a different position. 



    “Other than that the only way will be to have Parliament to review it whether the political will will be there I don’t know. It is a lot that really needs to be reviewed because with Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act, everything publishable, everything reportable might be interpreted as cybercrime for which journalists and media houses can be targeted.”

    “In terms of criminal defamation, I think other states can take example from Lagos. In Lagos the criminal code law no longer recognises criminal defamation as an offence. In most other states, defamation is still a crime in their various codes.”

    Effiong further advised media houses to get legal practitioners to offer them advise on investigative pieces before publishing them.

    “There is no harm in getting a lawyer to even give an advisory and read it so as to ask one or two questions.”

    Usman Mustapha is a solution journalist with International Centre for Investigative Reporting. You can easily reach him via: [email protected]. He tweets @UsmanMustapha_M

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