Leading media law and journalism organizations announce new legal support for fact-checkers

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Posted on: 
9 Jan 2019

Fact-checkers around the world are under threat. However, from today, fact-checkers will be able to access legal support and resources through the Fact-Checkers Legal Support Initiative (FLSI). The project is being launched by three leading media law and journalism organizations: the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). The collaboration is in response to the growing threats facing the individuals and organizations who check the accuracy of claims made in the public arena.

At the same time that fact-checking has emerged as vital tool to address the spread of misinformation, the non-partisan individuals and organizations who check facts are facing growing threats — including online harassment and physical violence. Many are being threatened with lawsuits and often do not have the resources to defend themselves.

To meet this need and help ensure fact-checkers can continue doing their important work, this new initiative will provide legal support including connecting fact-checkers with lawyers, establishing a fund to help pay legal fees when pro bono support isn’t available, and publishing guides covering the main legal and non-legal threats that fact-checkers face and how they can be mitigated.

"Given the spread of misinformation in recent years, the need for fact-checkers to verify information in the public sphere has grown enormously.  Yet fact-checkers may be targeted with lawsuits and harassment for doing their jobs.  So we're putting together these new guides to help fact-checkers better understand their legal rights," said Sarah Matthews, staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

There are currently more than 150 dedicated fact-checking projects globally, according to the Duke Reporters’ Lab database. Of these, 57 are signatories of the IFCN’s code of principles with commitments to non-partisanship, fairness and transparency. While some fact-checkers are embedded in large media organizations, the majority are small, not-for-profit outfits without the resources to hire a lawyer. They are therefore especially vulnerable to legal threats.

“In an era when the term ‘fake news’ has become weaponized, some choose to attack the referees,” said Lucy Freeman, Chief Executive Officer of MLDI.

Alexios Mantzarlis, Director of The IFCN said: "2018 was a tough year for fact-checkers. High profile attacks from politicians unhappy to be held accountable for their words, organized online harassment by partisan trolls and a smattering of legal threats meant fact-checkers had to deal with much more than just getting to the truth. I am both hopeful that the Fact-Checkers' Legal Support Initiative will provide some respite and peace of mind for fact-checkers facing spurious litigation — and delighted to advise MLDI and RCFP as they accomplish their noble missions."

The first guides that FLSI will produce will cover Brazil, Italy, the Philippines and the U.S. – reflecting the increased legal threats faced by fact-checkers in these countries. The RCFP will lead development of the guide for fact-checkers in the U.S. and coordinate with other media lawyers who will author the remaining chapters.

The project has already received a donation from Facebook and is in talks with other donors to provide additional support.

“Since we launched our third-party fact-checking program two years ago, we've recognized the need to support the global fact-checking ecosystem wherever we can,” said Meredith Carden, Facebook Head of News Integrity Partnerships. “One critical way is by providing support for fact-checkers around the world who may be threatened by legal actions as a result of their efforts. The Media Legal Defence Initiative has had tremendous impact in defending the rights of journalists, bloggers and independent media; and we're honored to contribute to the expansion of their work to fact-checkers.”

A specialized website for the FLSI will launch later this month. In the meantime, any fact-checkers in need of legal support because of their work can apply at any time via MLDI’s application portal.

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