LEGAL AID FOR JOURNALISTS AND MEDIA – TOOLS AND RESOURCES

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?

GFMD has compiled a list of pro bono legal aid resources and tools to help journalists, media, and media support organisations in need of legal counsel.


USA

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.

See also Columbia University’s article on 10 smaller legal aid clinics and centres operating in the United States.


Europe

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.

MFRR

On May 14, 2020, GFMD hosted a webinar together with the founding orgainsations of MFRR. You can learn more about the initiative by watching the webinar here.


Global

Netherlands-based Free Press Unlimited (FPU) provides financial support to journalists and media organisations worldwide. The organisation gives support to journalists who face prosecution or imprisonment and who are unable to afford a lawyer or trial costs. This way, they will not be forced to withdraw their defense and accept the consequences of, often false, accusations. 

Journalists, media workers, and media organisations who are at legal risk because of their profession can request non-structural support from the Legal Defense Fund in the form of basic legal support (to a maximum of €5.000). This can for example include lawyer fees and other legal costs, and limited support to partner and family; or public or impact litigation grants. Requests are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

The registered British charity Media Legal Defence Initiative provides legal help to journalists, citizen journalists, and independent media across the world. 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.

See also Global Investigative Journalist Network’s (GIJN) comprehensive list of legal resources as well as the Defence Handbook for Journalists and Bloggers made in collaboration with Reporters Without Borders, Thomson Foundation, and the international law firm Paul Hastings LLP.