Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines: Experts call for legal reforms to address abusive lawsuits targeting human rights and public interest advocates (SLAPPs)

On 9 December 2021, the ICJ and 11 other organizations co-hosted an online panel discussion entitled: “Time to Fight Against SLAPPs in Southeast Asia”.

The purpose of this event was to create a platform to exchange experiences, best-practice and lessons learned withexperts from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines on their fight against the Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

“SLAPP” refers to lawsuits undertaken with the principal objective of curtailing or deterring public criticism or opposition to certain activities of the entity of those initiating the legal action, including in the human rights area.  SLAPP lawsuits typically have a “chilling effect” on the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly; and the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs.

The panel included Sanhawan Srisod, ICJ legal adviser; Edmund Bon Tai Soon, Head of Chambers (Civil), AmerBON (Malaysia); Jordan M. Fronda, Research and Advocacy Coordinator, Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines; and Raynaldo Sembiring, Executive Director, Indonesian Centre for Environmental Law.

The forum addressed the worrisome proliferation of SLAPP and related defamation lawsuits used against journalists, human rights defenders, activists, and expert witnesses in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

It was noted that even efforts States have taken to curtail abusive SLAPPs were inadequate.

While these laws have guarded against certain SLAPP lawsuits, they alone could not address the problem. For example, anti-SLAPP provisions in Indonesia only provides protection against SLAPPs for environmental issues, which may leave rights advocates in other areas vulnerable to SLAPPs. Similarly, anti-SLAPP provisions in Thailand are limited to criminal cases filed by a private complainant, – e.g. an individual or private entity, – but not civil cases or criminal cases filed by a public prosecutor.

Among these countries, only the Philippines has rules defining what a SLAPP is.

Recommendations discussed to improve protection against SLAPPs, included: (i) enabling early dismissal mechanism to effectively filtered SLAPP cases that are filed with improper purposes or that target protected conduct, like human rights and environmental defense; (ii) permitting recovery of costs by SLAPP targets; (iii) imposing penalties on SLAPP initiators; (iv) reforming the causes of action that commonly form the basis of SLAPPs; (v) defining the term SLAPP suit under the law; (vi) putting in place mandatory grievance mechanisms to allow avenue for engagement between companies and affected groups; and (vii) protecting public participation and promoting access to information.

The Workshop was conducted in collaboration with Prince of Songkla University’s Faculty of Law; Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL); Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines; AmerBON Advocates; Amnesty International Thailand; Cross-Cultural Foundation; Community Resources Center; Law Long Beach; ENLAWTHAI Foundation; Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA); and Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC).

The recording of the discussion is available here.

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