Legal threats to journalists and media houses are not a new phenomenon. But in an increasingly hostile media environment, lack of funding has resulted in a diminished appetite for legal cases on the part of the media houses and newsrooms, leaving journalists high and dry when it comes to legal protection and, inevitably, resulting in increased self-censorship. But what do you do when your story leads to litigation regardless of precautionary measures and how do you protect yourself from future law-suits?
We have compiled a list of pro bono legal aid resources and tools to help journalists, media, and media support organisations in need of legal counsel.
The Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice provides pro bono legal representation to dozens of social justice organizations and engages hundreds of law firms in this worldwide work. The Vance Center’s Good Governance Program advises many investigative journalism organizations around the world on issues of avoiding and defending against defamation claims, establishing joint investigations through data sharing and co-publication, employing journalists and editors in and from other countries, setting codes of conduct to promote safety, equal opportunity, and safety, and the like. Their clients include the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the A Culture of Safety Alliance, the Arab Reporters of Investigative Journalism, and bellingcat.com.
The programme helps reduce the risk of lawsuits through training and pre-publication review and also fund legal assistance to fight lawsuits meant to intimidate and financially burden reporters (such as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs). Reporters Shield is a solution to the increasing danger these lawsuits pose to investigative journalism in the public interest.
How will Reporters Shield work?
Before a story is published, Reporters Shield will help:
- Conduct training on how best to avoid lawsuits
- Supply resources for editing and fact checking guidance
- Provide pre-publication legal review as needed
After a story is published, Reporters Shield will help:
- Identify qualified lawyers to respond to legal threats and claims
- Supervise and pay for legal defense
Reporters Shield will be launched in 2023. For updates, please visit their site and subscribe to their email list.
The charity provides:
- Emergency Defence, ensuring that quality legal representation is available to journalists by paying for legal fees, connecting them to a lawyer if they don’t have one, and providing that lawyer with technical legal support. They also ensure that journalists have access to legal remedies when their right to freedom of expression has been violated, for instance if they have become victims of violence or harassment;
- Strategic Litigation, taking on strategic cases to challenge unjust laws used to silence journalists and to ensure the law is used to protect rather than persecute them. They seek out cases that offer an opportunity for systemic change (for instance changing a problematic law or practice) that will benefit media freedom;
- Capacity Building, building local legal capacity with a view to providing journalists around the world with an opportunity to access the best possible legal defence. They do this through training lawyers and funding local legal centres that can represent journalists free of charge.
Netherlands-based Free Press Unlimited (FPU) provides emergency and legal support to journalists and media organisations worldwide through its programme Reporters Respond. The organisation gives support to journalists who face prosecution or imprisonment and who are unable to afford a lawyer or trial costs.
- provides legal representation for journalists facing prosecution, disputable lawsuits, or any other form of legal intimidation related to their work;
- covers the costs of judicial proceedings;
- assists media workers that have been arbitrarily detained or imprisoned (and their families)
TrustLaw is the Thomson Reuters Foundation's global pro bono legal programme. Through the facilitation of pro bono legal support and research, as well as the provision of resources for organisations across the globe, the programme works to advance media freedom, foster more inclusive economies, and promote human rights.
TrustLaw is a completely free service. Once a member, NGOs and social enterprises can request free legal support, and lawyers can volunteer to work on projects that interest them.
NGOs and social enterprises can request assistance on a number of day-to-day issues that their organisation may be facing, from drafting policies to reviewing contracts.
The network's legal members comprise over 120,000 lawyers who volunteer their time, skills and expertise to help NGOs and social enterprises achieve their social mission.
The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) is an Europe-wide mechanism, which tracks, monitors, and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. This project provides legal aid and practical support, public advocacy and information to protect journalists and media workers. The MFRR is organised by a consortium led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) with ARTICLE 19, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Institute for Applied Informatics at the University of Leipzig (InfAI), International Press Institute (IPI), and CCI/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT). The project is co-funded by the European Commission.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) provides pro bono legal representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal aid and resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists in the US. The Reporters Committee serves news organisations, reporters, editors, documentary filmmakers, media lawyers, and many more.
RCFP also operates a Legal Defense Hotline that is available to working journalists and media lawyers seven days a week. For reporters covering major events such as elections, presidential inaugurals, Olympics, political party conventions and the like, special event hotlines are created.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has created the Legal Defence Fund, an initiative to initiate and support litigation that enforces public access to government records and proceedings, which can be the most expensive way to defend the First Amendment. The fund can also be a source of support for FOI hotlines, coalitions, and newsletters, as well as for legislative lobbying activities aimed at enforcing public access to government records and proceedings.
The fund partners with the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s Knight FOI Litigation Fund, which exists to offer financial support in open government lawsuits. It was established to fuel and assist the pursuit of important FOI cases by helping to defray costs such as filing fees, depositions, court costs, and other expenses associated with legal actions.
The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) at Yale University is a law student clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services, pursuing impact litigation and developing policy initiatives.
MFIA has provided pro bono representation to clients on matters addressing fundamental principles of transparency, free speech, and press freedom. Clients have included independent journalists, start-up and established news organisations, public interest organisations, activists, academic researchers, and others. MFIA have also litigated gag orders, defended libel claims, and pursued scores of access lawsuits, including both cases brought under the Freedom of Information Act and cases seeking to extend and enforce the First Amendment right of access.
The MFIA practice is largely focused in the state and federal courts of Connecticut, New York, and the District of Columbia, although the clinic has represented clients in many other parts of the country, from Massachusetts to Arizona, and Florida to Nebraska.
The Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program is a joint partnership of Microsoft and Davis Wright Tremaine. The mission is to make pro bono legal services available to journalists and small newsrooms that cannot otherwise afford legal representation. The program consists of three workstreams: Pre-publication review, access to public records, and defending journalists against subpoenas for confidential information. The pilot has launched in Washington state and selected parts of Northern and Southern California with exceptions for national pre-publication review matters. They are currently receiving referrals from three nonprofits (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, First Amendment Coalition, and Washington Coalition for Open Government) but also consider requests for assistance received outside of these organizations. If you would like to receive pro bono legal support, please reach out to Flavie Fuentes at [email protected].