AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis

Fact-checkers score wins in court, but the threat of legal harassment remains

Fact-checkers in Greece, Kazakhstan and Brazil celebrated legal victories this month after fighting off court challenges that could have crippled their organizations.

In Athens, a court rejected a lawsuit by a group called the Union of Greek Physicists that alleged Greek fact-checking organization Ellinika Hoaxes had defamed one of its members for accurately debunking his pseudoscientific claims.

“We feel vindicated,” said Thanos Sitistas, senior editor at Ellinika Hoaxes. “It was a difficult case, and they were asking for a lot of money.” The union was seeking €700,000 in damages for the inventor of a “free energy device” who alleged the outlet had damaged his reputation for accurately debunking the workings of his machine. “If we had lost the case and called to pay all that money, we would have been destroyed,” Sitistas said.

Ellinika Hoaxes benefitted from the help of the Fact-Checkers Legal Support Initiative. The initiative is a collaboration between the International Fact-Checking Network, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Media Legal Defense Initiative to support fact-checking organizations with legal advice, pro-bono representation and/or financing to fight legal threats.

“MLDI actually paid all the legal fees, which was very important,” Sitistas said. The union still has the option to appeal, which Sitistas said could drag the case out another two to three years, but this latest decision protects Ellinika Hoaxes from total collapse.

In Kazakhstan, multiple courts overturned government efforts to close several nongovernmental organizations, including fact-checking outlet Factcheck.kz. Kazakh authorities accused the organizations of not paying taxes on money they’d received from foreign organizations, which Factcheck.kz editor Pavel Bannikov explained was an excuse to ban them.

“We gave them these (financial) notifications every month,” Bannikov said “We had a call with the (authorities), and we recorded it, and they told us this was an order from our government.”

Factcheck.kz faced the possibility of a three-month suspension, which Bannikov said would have effectively shuttered his organization.

“Three months without any posts, without any articles, without any posts to our social media,” he said. “We couldn’t even work as individuals, and we couldn’t even mention Factcheck.kz for three months.”

Bannikov credited international pressure from the European Union and groups like Human Rights Watch for playing a key role in getting the courts to overturn the government’s ruling.

“After the government saw this reaction from the European Union, they had a briefing with the chief of our tax department, and journalists got to ask him a lot of questions about this pressure on NGOs,” Bannikov said. After this press conference, the court overturned the government’s decisions preventing the government from banning Factcheck.kz outright.

Bannikov said the Kazakh government has a history of using the legal system to put pressure on independent media organizations. He gave the example of how the government used a now-defunct defamation law to close several media outlets before the law was overturned in July 2020. But the European Union has put increased pressure on the country, passing a Feb. 11 resolution that would allow the body to sanction Kazakh officials deemed to be violating human rights.

Bannikov was happy with the court’s decision and the external pressure from the European Union, but worried the government would try similar measures in the future once these pressures subside.

In Brazil, a court threw out a lawsuit from a politician who sued fact-checking organization Aos Fatos for an article showing her to be one of that country’s most prolific spreaders of COVID-19 misinformation. The case had been dismissed by a lower court in November 2020, but this latest decision removed the threat of a future appeal by the lawmaker.

Aos Fatos isn’t clear yet. It’s facing a similar lawsuit from a federal prosecutor who has openly advocated using the legal system to harass organizations like Aos Fatos. In November 2020, Aos Fatos published an article summarizing messages of support from Brazilian journalists and media organizations.

“We reject any attempt to curtail our activities and that of any journalists who are committed to factual truth,” wrote Aos Fatos executive director Tai Nalon.