Fact-checkers are commonly at risk of legal threats such as civil suits and criminal prosecution. Civil suits can look like a private individual or company initiating an injunction to prevent fact-checkers starting or continuing their work. These suits can be based on defamation, breach of privacy or copyright/IP infringement. Criminal prosecution can look like a fine or a prison sentence, initiated by the state. This can include criminal defamation, cybercrime and sedition.
For example, in Greece, fact-checker Thanos Sitistas and his organisation Ellinika Hoaxes have been hit by a barrage of lawsuits, legal notices and even threats from neo-Nazis and other extremist right-wing groups. Two of these cases were brought against Sitistas and Ellinika Hoaxes for defamation, after they had debunked statements made by the claimants.
Defamation is the unlawful undermining of a person’s reputation. This includes libel, which is defamation in written or permanent form, slander, which is defamation in a spoken and unrecorded form and insult, which is the defaming of offices and institutions.
Fact-checkers can protect themselves from this type of legal action through being mindful of the tone of their publication (e.g. not sensational), becoming educated on the defamation laws in their country and by keeping good records.
Statements are not defamatory if they are true, privileged (e.g. spoken in parliament or court, or a report of those proceedings), opinion or satire, reasonable publication (e.g. included good faith efforts to verify and made in the public interest) or made by someone else (and the fact-checker does not support it).
If you are a fact-checker and you have been confronted with any legal problem as a result of your work, you can contact the FLSI. Legal problems can include having legal action taken against you in the form of a civil suit or criminal prosecution, or wanting to take legal action yourself, for example after receiving threats, harassment or violence.
The FLSI can help you decide whether you need a lawyer, help you find one, help you pay legal fees and also support your lawyer where necessary. In order to apply, you only need to complete a short application form and upload copies of any legal documents, budget breakdowns and any relevant articles or reports.
Often, a strongly worded letter from a lawyer can be enough to stop any legal threats you may be facing. If not, the FLSI has a 70% case success rate and your win in court could help strengthen protection for all fact-checkers around the world.
For more information on the legal support offered by FLSI, please click here.
If you are based in the US, Brazil, the Philippines or Italy, the FLSI has a selection of free legal guides in English, Italian and Portugese. To view them, please click here.