Thursday, September 29, 2022

Russian defamation lawsuit threatens British press freedom: activist

LONDON – Activists say press freedom is at risk after a pair of lawsuits brought by Russian oligarchs against a British journalist and her publisher.

Roman Abramovich, owner of Britain’s Chelsea Football Club, and Russia’s state-owned energy company Rosneft have both filed defamation suits against journalist Catherine Belton and her publisher HarperCollins UK. The cases are being heard jointly in the High Court of London.

In his 2020 book, “Putin’s People: How the KGB took Russia back and then took on the West,” Belton wrote that Abramovich worked in 2003 at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin to increase Russian influence abroad. Bought Chelsea Football Club.

Abramovich’s lawyer told the court that the book contained what he described as “lazy inaccuracies”.

“The book describes the claimant as Putin’s cashier and custodian of the Kremlin slush fund,” lawyer Hugh Tomlinson told the court. “What is being said is that Mr. Abramovich is making his assets available to Putin … secretly to Putin and his comrades. That is the point of view that the proper and normal reader would take.”

Abramovich denied that he bought Chelsea on Putin’s orders.

Belton cited two sources for the allegation. A former Russian government insider was Sergei Pugachev. The other was anonymous. Defense lawyers told the court that Abramovich’s assets were “substantially owned when requested” by Putin.

Press freedom advocates say the courts are being used to silence journalists.

“The concern here is that this will lead to – and it is intended to lead – an atmosphere of fear that will stifle investigative journalism, which will prevent the interrogation of those who exercise great power and wealth and influence. This is about Russia. It is about Russian money, but it is also about Russian influence in the UK,” said Seamus Dooley, assistant secretary general of Britain’s National Union of Journalists in an interview with VOA.

Rosneft’s lawyers argued that excerpts from the book showed the company had “confiscated” the assets of Russian oil company Yukos in a rigged auction.

Belton’s lawyers told the court that the claims were well made and based on years of research and interviews. Belton, a former correspondent for Britain’s Financial Times in Moscow who now works for the Reuters news agency, has been named as a defendant, meaning his personal assets are at risk.

Dooley told the VOA that UK defamation laws were being abused.

“We must be very clear that one has the right to a good name. One has the right to protect one’s reputation. But when defamation law is used to prevent as is happening, I think the matter is powerful. Lawful interrogation of individuals, when it is used to prevent legitimate inquiry into matters of public interest, we have to ask whether the law is justified,” Dooley said.

Financier and human rights activist Bill Brower has led a campaign for justice over the 2009 death of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Russian police custody. Brower said he feared a chilling influence on the media.

“You’ll have less strong reporting and less controversial books about corruption, about Russia and Putin and the oligarchs because everyone’s going to be afraid to find themselves in the same situation,” Brower told VOA.

Belton’s book was name-checked in a video posted online by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in which he claimed Putin owned a secret $1 billion mansion on the Black Sea. Putin denies the claim

“I am sure the Kremlin will use every aspect of this matter as propaganda,” Brower said.

The initial two-day hearing, which ended on July 29, was to decide on the meaning of the disputed portions. Judge Amanda Tipples said she expected to deliver the verdict in the coming weeks. Any defamation suit based on his decision will be filed.

This report contains information from Reuters.

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Nation World News Desk
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