The rise of strategic lawsuits aimed at hindering public participation is a real threat to the media and the rule of law in South Africa. This was according to Dario Milo, media lawyer at Webber Wentzel and keynote speaker at an inaugural lecture hosted on 27 July at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS).
The lecture was hosted by Freedom Under Law and Stellenbosch University’s department of journalism, to discuss how “a new generation of high quality legal journalists” can assist in preserving trust in the South African judicial system, said Judith February, executive officer of Freedom Under Law.
More than 50 people attended the event, including legal and media professionals.
Law makers, parliamentarians and the media industry need to individually address strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) cases in their various spheres of influence, stated Dario Milo, media lawyer at Webber Wentzel and keynote speaker at the inaugural lecture hosted by Freedom Under Law and the Stellenbosch University department of journalism. PHOTO: Emma Solomon
‘SLAPP’-ing the media
Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are “strategic and orchestrated to stop people from participating in the public domain in a critical way,” said Milo.
The main targets of SLAPP cases are “critics, journalists, human rights defenders, environmentalists, other activists and truth tellers”, stated Milo.
SLAPPS are an avenue that is weaponised, often by the rich and powerful, to intimidate individuals who have engaged in public commentary or activism into silence, said Milo
Cultivating greater expertise in the field of legal journalism and providing a platform for a new generation of specialised journalists has become essential. This was according to Judith February, executive officer of Freedom Under Law, who presented the opening address at an inaugural lecture hosted by Freedom Under Law and Stellenbosch University’s department of journalism. PHOTO: Emma Solomon
The media ‘SLAPPs’ back
“SLAPP behaviour, which involves public relations and fake news, is facilitated by a media that is not selective in who gets a platform,” said Sam Sole, journalist and managing partner at amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.
AmaBhungane was recently involved in legal action against the Moti Group. Freedom of speech organisations have labelled the legal case between AmaBhungane and the Moti group a SLAPP case, said Tania Broughton, in an article published for GroundUp.
“The fact that some media institutions have been captured and weaponised is a problem for the whole industry. People need to come together to try and develop some ideas about how to fund journalism but also how to maintain standards.” This was according to Sam Sole, journalist and managing partner at Amabhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, at an inaugural lecture hosted by Freedom Under Law and Stellenbosch University’s department of journalism. PHOTO: Emma Solomon
The process of journalism involves exercising professional judgement, said Sole.
“When you are presenting socially responsible information there is a responsibility to filter and ask ‘is this person credible’ [and] ‘is this person telling the truth’,” he said.
When these professional standards aren’t maintained, bad actors are able to weaponise the media, stated Sole.
Combating these cases requires “quality journalism in investigating and reporting, as well as debunking the disinformation campaigns that often accompany these cases”, said Milo.
This article first appeared on smfnews.org, a news website managed by the BA Hons (Journalism) class at the Department of Journalism.