Since its inception MLDI has funded the defence of hundreds of journalists and secured 'wins' in the vast majority of cases. It has also won strategically important judgments on issues such as the protection of journalists sources and the 'balance' between privacy and the right of freedom of expression. It has also helped build a number of legal defence units in national organisations.

The Media Legal Defence Initiative originated from a programme of work by the Open Society Initiative. Faced with an ever-growing demand for media legal defence services which neither they nor others could respond to, the OSI Media Program and the Open Society Justice Initiative decided to set up a new entity which would have the capacity to defend not just headline-grabbing media freedom cases, but to respond to the constant barrage of law suits many independent media are faced with.

Support was obtained from additional donors, including the MacArthur Foundation and the Sigrid Rausing Trust, and in 2008, the Media Legal Defence Initiative was incorporated in the United Kingdom. An international board was formed comprising media lawyers such as Eduardo Bertoni, former Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, Stuart Karle, former General Counsel at the Wall Street Journal and Beatrice Mtetwa, a Zimbabwean media lawyer, as well as media representatives such as Bambang Harymurti, editor of Indonesia’s Tempo Magazine.