April 1, 2023

Four media outlets in the UK and the US are facing defamation charges after publishing an investigative report on the assets of a fund named after former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), openDemocracy and The Telegraph received several “pre-action” letters between May and August claiming their reporting was inaccurate and caused financial damage to a UK-registered company.

A claim was subsequently filed in the High Court on August 16, but has not yet reached the publisher.

The legal action has reignited the debate over whether to use strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps) to snub public interest journalism.

Dominic Raab, who was attorney general until he was sacked by Liz Truss, announced in July a proposal for courts in England and Wales to be given greater powers to dismiss allegations that were made in the public interest. Writing for journalists and publishers in legal proceedings, these lawsuits were found to be lacking in merit early on.

Claims have been brought against TBIJ, openDemocracy and Telegraph on behalf of Jusan Technologies and Nazarbayev Fund Private Fund, companies registered in Companies House, UK. The fund is also suing the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in the US, seeking more than $75,000 (£68,000) in damages and punitive damages.

The article in question has been reporting allegations of financial ties between Jusan, Nazarbayev’s foundation and Nazarbayev and his family. Lawyers for Jusan and the fund say the allegations are inaccurate and defamatory.

US law firm Boies Schiller Flexner, which has been hired to represent Jusan and the fund, said it did not represent Nazarbayev.

A spokesman for the fund and Jusan said: “We look forward to proving in court that the reports challenged in the proceedings are false. We are not owned or controlled by Mr. Nazarbayev, and we have not benefited him. Our The only mission is to support public education in Kazakhstan.”

Nazarbayev accepted as ‘supreme board chairman’ Nazarbayev Fund (NF)”, but a source familiar with the controversy, who asked not to be named, said he had no active role in the running or functioning of the fund and had never had any role or connection, directly or indirectly, with Jusan.

openDemocracy’s editor-in-chief Peter Geoghegan defended the accuracy of the investigation and said he believed the legal action was a “clear attempt to intimidate independent investigative journalism”.

He added: “We are a small non-profit media organisation that is threatened by organisations with money and power for reporting on what we believe is in the public interest.”

The Daily Telegraph did not respond to a request for comment.

The TBIJ and openDemocracy warned that defending themselves in the high court could drain all their funds, which would have profound implications for their ability to continue pursuing public interest journalism.They say the claim is “Potentially Financially Destructive”. The two outlets have spent tens of thousands of pounds on the case.

“OpenDemocracy and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have taken the unusual step of bringing this matter to the public because we believe it’s important for people to understand how this country uses legal threats, and we’re determined to defend ourselves,” Geoghegan said.

He noted that, at the moment, defending what is believed to be Slaps’ charges could “cost a lot of money, with the result that many defendants are left out of the game and other journalists won’t be able to open new investigations.”

Geoghegan added: “This case has cost openDemocracy tens of thousands of pounds and we need the public’s help to protect ourselves.”

Sources familiar with the controversy insisted that the legal claims should not be described as Slapp.

“Depicting them as such would falsely assume that they were not submitted in good faith, and therefore would assume that the lies in the publication were true,” they said.

They added that the fund and Jusan “have the right to take legal action to preserve their reputations for false and damaging allegations and to cease the publication of such false information”.

Rozina Breen, CEO of TBIJ, said: “We strongly believe in this [sort of] Critical public interest journalism is essential to a functioning and transparent democracy, and an absolute necessity to ensure sound financial governance and accountability. “

slap be in the spotlight After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions on oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. Some have previously been involved in high-profile legal battles against journalists and book publishers.

As part of its response to the Slaps inquiry, the government has also proposed a cost cap – to “enable a proper defence of unfounded cases” – which could be made by ministers under secondary legislation without parliamentary approval .

Nick Williams, policy and campaign official for the Index of Censorship, said, Publishers appear to be “symbolizing the increasing use of Slaps to target and suppress public reporting”.

He added: “The UK has long been at the centre of legal threats to stifle media freedom and the public’s right to know in the world’s wealthy, powerful and opaque nations.

“In July, the UK government pledged to introduce a range of measures against Slapps, and these threats demonstrate the urgency of the problem. We stand with openDemocracy and TBIJ and all others facing such threats and reiterate our call for swift and bold action measures to protect freedom of speech.”

OCCRP, a US-registered nonprofit news network, is the subject of a defamation lawsuit filed July 29 in the US District Court for the District of Maryland.

Kazakhstan ranks 122 out of 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. Nazarbayev was the country’s president from 1991 until his resignation in 2019.

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