Throughout much of the world, journalists’ legal rights of expression and access to information are ever-changing — and physical harm or financial injury are too often common. So it is some comfort to know that there are organizations willing to defend those legal rights established by regional, national, and international laws. Legal aid organizations may be limited, however, serving only a specific geographic region or limited to a specific area of law. Here are several well-established groups that specialize in getting legal assistance for journalists, as well as other helpful resources:
This global nongovernmental organization helps defend the rights of reporters across continents and across platforms — from print to broadcast and on line. The London-based group works with a network of legal defense organizations around the world, with individual lawyers and will also pay legal fees if necessary. MLDI provides special priority to cases in which an individual journalist is threatened with imprisonment or bankruptcy, as well as matters that threaten the existence of a media outlet. Support is also provided when journalists require legal assistance to assert their rights. In 2019, MLDI announced a Fact-Checkers Legal Support Initiative.
Free Press Unlimited Legal Defense Fund Financial support to journalists and media organizations worldwide. “We give support to journalists who face prosecution or imprisonment and who are unable to afford a lawyer or trial costs.”
The OAS “Special Rapporteur” acts as an independent ombudsman, investigating petitions or complaints and reporting to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) on violations of press freedoms. One of its most important functions is to advise the IACHR on the evaluation of individual petitions and prepare the corresponding reports. The IACHR can then bring cases to the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights. While the Rapporteur does not provide journalists or media organizations with legal counsel or financial aid, it will consider a petition from journalists for free.
Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has brought together select law firms, law schools, and individual lawyers throughout the United States to provide legal counsel and representation free of charge or at a reduced fee to online journalists and journalism ventures. The OMLN provides free referral for “business formation and governance, copyright licensing and fair use, access to government information, pre-publication review of content, and representation in litigation.”
The Independent Press Freedom Foundation Fund was established by Dutch Association of Journalists and Society of Editors in 2007 to support a broad range of rights of expression and access to information. While in Amsterdam and primarily focused on the Dutch media community, the Fund has given financial support to groups elsewhere in Europe.
In addition to the 24/7 emergency hotline serving journalists (including student journalists) and legal professionals, this nonprofit based in Washington D.C. provides resource guides and updates on court decisions and news related to media law. RCFP publishes The First Amendment Handbook, a basic primer on the laws affecting reporters’ rights to gather and disseminate news, and The Reporter’s Privilege, a complete compendium of information on the reporter’s privilege — the right not to be compelled to testify or disclose sources and information in court — in each state and federal circuit. To create, file, and track federal, state, or local public records requests, you can use the Reporters Committee’s free iFOIA online tool. A FOIA Wiki describes the federal FOIA law and judicial precedents.
The Open Government Guide describes every state’s open records and open meetings laws. Another resource is Electronic Communications Surveillance: What Journalists and Media Organizations Need to Know.
The Society’s legal fund was established to “initiate and support litigation that enforces public access to government records and proceeding” but can also be used for organizing, informing and lobbying aimed at enforcing access to public records and proceedings. While the primary goal of the fund is to bring financial clout in support of journalists, the office can also assist in identifying legal counsel for specific First Amendment matters in all 50 states.
This directory features domestic and international NGOs, journalist associations, trade unions, private law firms, lawyers and experts that offer legal, financial and advocacy services and support for journalists in Europe. The site is sponsored by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute in Italy.
This nearly 300-page handbook was put together by Reporters Without Borders, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and international law firm Paul Hastings LLP. Sections include Reputation and Defamation, Right to Privacy, Public Order and Morality, and National Security and State Secrets.
Tipsheet: Defending Yourself from Legal Threats, by Kyu Ho Youm.