Slapping Away the Allegations: Russian oligarchs move to silence critics

April 5, 2022

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Russian oligarchs’ use of “Slapps” might stifle investigative journalism into corruption.

What does this mean?

Let’s first start with the obvious question – what are “Slapps”? The abbreviation stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation”. These lawsuits are usually defamation claims. However, Slapps are not restricted to this type of claim. The overall goal of this type of suit is to exhaust the time and resources of defendants. As such, Slapps are usually brought forward by wealthy plaintiffs. It is also important to note that the goal is not to win – it is a mechanism to intimidate journalists, especially those who do not have powerful news outlets or agents to back them up. This way, findings that are in the public interest might be suppressed through extensive litigation.

A recent example of the use of Slapps was the case regarding a book written by Catherine Belton – Putin’s People. Multiple Russian billionaires sued Belton and her publisher HarperCollins – all of the claims were subsequently settled or withdrawn. However, with the deep pockets of the rich, how many could challenge such suits? Labour MP Liam Byrne and Conservative MP David Davis have tabled amendments to the Economic Crime Bill that would give courts the power to strike out these lawsuits.

What's the big picture effect?

According to the Foreign Policy Centre, the UK is the top destination for foreign legal threats against investigative journalists. Why does this matter? The main argument is that freedom of speech and, more specifically, investigative reporting into the dealings of the rich should be protected. By leaving the Slapps “regime” in place, a system of privatised censorship (a term coined by the Financial Times) might prevail.

There is also a more pressing issue, namely Ukraine and the sanctions that these Russian oligarchs are facing. As the UK is targeting the circle surrounding Vladimir Putin, Slapps might deter further scrutiny of their financial affairs. Journalists, critics and watchdogs could be bogged down, preventing them from challenging Putin and further unveiling his and his associates’ financial dealings.

What can be done about it? There are examples of anti-Slapp laws already in many US states and some Canadian provinces. These usually involve an application from the defendant at an early stage of the proceedings, asking to dismiss the lawsuit if it relates to content that is in the public interest. Caroline Kean, a leading media defence lawyer, suggests that there should be an automatic process where the judge decides whether the case is related to public interest from the outset, halting the proceedings there. There is no sign of a UK equivalent yet but as the Russo-Ukrainian conflict progresses, the UK Government might yet look at ways to slap down bogus claims.

Report written by Monika Sakyte

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