Media & PR

Zahawi: Raab must bring in law to stop baseless legal threats

A press release from the Liberal Democrats brings the news:

The Liberal Democrats have written to Dominic Raab, calling on him to “urgently” bring in a new law to stop journalists and campaigners being silenced through legal threats.

It comes following numerous reports that Conservative Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi used the threat of legal action against campaigners and journalists who raised questions about his tax affairs.

The government has previously promised new legislation to tackle the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). Last year in response to a consultation on the issue, Dominic Raab warned these sorts of legal threats can have a “chilling effect” and “stifle legitimate reporting and debate,” with “media and others intimidated into abandoning critical stories in the face of crippling legal costs.”  

Raab also previously said that “it is wrong that unscrupulous individuals and corporations are able to exploit our laws and our courts in this jurisdiction with claims designed to muzzle respected journalists, academics and campaigners.”

The Liberal Democrats are calling on the government to bring in new anti-SLAPP laws as quickly as possible, and to clarify if they would prevent Cabinet Ministers such as Nadhim Zahawi from behaving in the way which has been alleged.

The party is also calling for the current investigation by the ethics adviser to look into the use of legal threats by Nadhim Zahawi.

Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper said:

Dominic Raab has rightly warned about the chilling effect that the threat of legal action can have on media scrutiny and exposing corruption. It’s now time to put his money where his mouth is by finally bringing forward tough new laws to tackle these baseless legal threats.

It is particularly worrying that Nadhim Zahawi reportedly used the threat of legal action against those raising questions about his tax affairs. We need to know whether the new rules the government is proposing in this area will tackle such behaviour by Cabinet Ministers in future.

The current inquiry into Zahawi by the ethics adviser must also look into this issue, and whether legal threats were used in an attempt to cover up the truth. It can’t be one rule for Conservative ministers and another for everyone else.

Previous comments from Dominic Raab on Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) can be found here and here.

The full letter from Daisy Cooper is:

Dear Deputy Prime Minister, 

I am writing following the reports which have emerged regarding the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi. 

You may be aware that journalists and other individuals, including tax lawyer Dan Neidle, have stated that when they previously sought to raise questions regarding Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs, they were sent threatening legal letters. According to Dan Neidle, “Zahawi’s lawyers threatened to sue [him] for libel” last year when he initially raised concerns. 

The Independent also revealed that Zahawi threatened to take legal action against them, when they were planning to report that he had been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, the National Crime Agency and HMRC. Other individuals have also made their experiences public. 

I am hugely concerned by these reports. I hope you will agree that, were a Cabinet Minister to have appeared to threaten journalists or transparency campaigners, to deter them from publishing factually accurate information, that would be deeply troubling. 

You will be aware of the practice by which some rich and powerful individuals take legal action intended to censor, intimidate, or silence those who criticise them, by burdening them with the cost of legal action, or even the threat of it. The use of these Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, are deeply worrying. 

In the case of Russian oligarchs in the UK for example, SLAPPs were used to try to prevent people from speaking out about their economic crime, and closeness to Putin.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, the Government responded to Parliamentarians who had been calling for reform in this area for many years, by launching a consultation to bring forward an anti-SLAPP law. 

Indeed, in March 2022 when you announced this consultation to Parliament, you commented:

“As a matter of plain principle, it is wrong that unscrupulous individuals and corporations are able to exploit our laws and our courts in this jurisdiction with claims designed to muzzle respected journalists, academics and campaigners, explicitly to stop them from shining a light on corruption”

In the Government’s own words, the responses from the call to evidence, published in July last year, revealed that the use of SLAPPs is having “a chilling effect.” Journalists, media organisations and publishers reported that they no longer publish information on certain individuals or topics – such as exposing serious wrong-doing or corruption – because of potential legal costs.”

But almost a year on from your initial announcement, this legislation is still yet to be seen. I urge you to therefore answer the following questions: 

  1. Do you still stand by your previous comments to Parliament from last year? 
  2. Will you bring forward these new laws as a matter of urgency?
  3. Will the new anti-SLAPP laws prevent Cabinet Ministers from being able to behave themselves in the manner which has been alleged? 
  4. What will the penalties be for those who break the new laws?

Rest assured, Liberal Democrats will do everything we can to see this legislation brought before Parliament, and to strengthen it as much as possible. 

I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely, 

Daisy Cooper MP
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

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