The Lawsuit Brought Against Catherine Belton by Russian Oligarchs: a red Alert for Europe

The lawsuit brought against Catherine Belton, a British investigative journalist, by four Russian oligarchs and a Russian state company has not attracted enough attention from the media and politicians in the European Union. This indifference is a fault. This desire for intimidation, often referred to as SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation), is not necessarily unique, nor is it restricted to the Russian regime and entities directly or indirectly linked to it. As the European Parliament considers, more broadly, how to legally prevent such proceedings that seek to silence investigative journalists, civil society groups and whistleblowers, there is an urgent need for action and legislation.

Catherine Belton is a British investigative journalist, long-time Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, and author of Putin’s People. How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, published in 2020. This 624-page, impeccably sourced book, the most important in recent years on the Putin system, was noted as the essay of the year by The Economist, the Financial Times, The New Statesman and The Telegraph. What has to be called an investigative masterpiece has been the subject of glowing reviews by Anne Applebaum (The Atlantic), Luke Harding (The Guardian), Howard Amos (Foreign Policy) and Jennifer Slazai (The New York Times), among others. Catherine Belton has also explained her book, in particular at a discussion organized by the Carnegie Endowment. While no one should deal with Russia without having read it, it has not yet been translated into French and German incomprehensibly (an Italian translation is available).

An indispensable book

The book narrates not only Putin’s irresistible attention, the blindness of those who could and should have opposed him and later regretted it, but above all the links, suggested or proven, of the system he built around him and organized crime. It is certainly not easy to talk about it, in Russia in particular, without risking one’s freedom or even one’s life. He also depicts the extraordinary blindness of the West or its refusal to see the reality of the Putin system, which also explains the penetration of which he was a victim, sometimes at the highest level of government.

Catherine Belton suggests — without it being possible to establish it — the possible involvement of the KGB agent posted in Dresden in terrorist attacks, the mafia links established during his stay in St. Petersburg with the mayor of the city, Anatoli Sobchak and, shortly after his arrival in power, the takeover organized by “Putin’s men” linked to the FSB on the country’s economy, especially with the dismantling of the Yukos group, which was a historic turning point. It offers a wealth of details on the complex transnational corruption schemes that were set up, including the “Putin Palace”, which was later the subject of the film made by Alexei Navalny’s team.

The book demonstrates with the utmost clarity the organization of the looting system from the top of the building — the cupola — and the close dependence of the oligarchs on Putin in a system of allegiance and services rendered. It also shows the extent of the system of organized corruption even beyond the borders of Russia.

Intolerable intimidation

The ire of Putin’s inner circle is understandable, especially at a time when the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom are considering taking action against him on corruption. Catherine Belton’s book goes into much more detail than those that preceded it — one thinks in particular of the pioneering work of Karen Dawisha (1949-2018), Putin’s Kleptocracy — and the extent of what she reveals is unparalleled. It also puts into perspective some of the cases already revealed by the press that did not have the full picture. She and her publisher, HarperCollins, are being sued in the UK by four oligarchs, including Russian telecoms giant Mikhail Fridman, his partner Peter Ayen, Roman Abramovich who owns Chelsea soccer club, and real estate tycoon Shalva Chigirinksy, as well as the Kremlin-controlled oil company Rosneft. At least three of these billionaires have fortunes of several billion euros. They have chosen the most expensive law firms in London to attack Catherine Belton. The journalist of The Guardian and The Observer Carole Cadwalladr made three ironic tweets on May 3, 2021 about their campaigns in favor of noble causes (mental health, diversity and equality between men and women in the workplace, Lesbians’ inclusion and visibility) not without dissonance with the ‘values’ of the clients they defend and their attacks on the journalist.

This case has caused a stir in the United Kingdom because London is considered to be a little Moscow-on-Tames in terms of the number of wealthy Russians in the city and the long tolerance across the Channel for wealth of dubious origin. It has often been pointed out in the British press that London is also a prime judicial location for procedural attacks by people close to the Russian government. Above all, the scandal of the proceedings against one of the best British journalists was rightly considered to be a violation of a fundamental right. In short, this procedure has become a small affaire d’Etat, with several members of parliament having risen to the occasion to defend her. In a remarkable and scathing editorial, the Financial Times, which is reputed to be close to business circles, not only defended its former journalist, but also criticized the openness of London’s legal system to foreigners, which encouraged a certain form of “legal tourism”, as well as the extreme inequality created by these ramshackle procedures between the powerful and the weakest (individuals, NGOs, journalists, small-circulation publications). Even if, in the end, the court dismisses the plaintiffs, the costs incurred by the defendants can literally drive them to ruin. In a democracy, the alternative between silence and increasingly risky speech is intolerable. One may recall the fate of the aforementioned book by Karen Dawisha, which the publisher of her five previous books, Cambridge University Press, refused to publish because of the legal risks involved, or worse. Its director, John Haslan, wrote in an email at the time: “Given the controversial matter subject of this book, and its basic premise that Putin’s power is founded on his ties to organised crime, we are not convinced that there is a way to rewrite the book that would give us the necessary comfort.” Dawisha had mentioned “preemptive book burning”. The book was finally published a few months later in the United States by Simon & Schuster where authors are better protected by libel laws.

This is also shown in an absolutely remarkable article by The Guardian journalist Nick Cohen. The British open system is used by those close to the Russian government to get at their opponents, but they may be immune even if they lose. Cohen recalls that Bill Browder was unable to recover the 600,000 pounds that his Russian opponent was ordered to pay him after his case was dismissed. What does it mean, he adds, to have a free press if journalists or human rights activists cannot investigate the wealthiest — or simply a criminal power or its instruments — without risking attack and bankruptcy? He thus suggests that a free society “should be alert to the possibility that at least some of what is unfolding in the courts could be Russian state action. Given the involvement of the Kremlin-dominated Rosneft, perhaps the thought is not too fanciful.” Finally, he reminds us that winning is less the objective of these actions than to make their victims pay a cost, financial, but also psychological and moral. In short, to put it another way, this is part of the war that the Kremlin is waging against its opponents and its general policy of destabilization of democratic and free countries.

A major risk for Europe to which governments and parliaments must respond

The specificities of the British system certainly lead to particularly heavy and costly procedures, but it would be wrong to consider the “Belton affair” as a purely insular matter. The European Union is directly concerned and is already beginning to fall victim to such proceedings, since neither the United Kingdom nor the EU countries have laws as restrictive as those of the United States with regard to legal action for defamation. This requires us to react quickly and forcefully against foreign private groups or other bodies acting, directly or indirectly, on behalf of dictatorial powers, Russia being just one example.

This is how proceedings were initiated in France by people deemed inclined to defend the Kremlin’s theses, by the French subsidiary of the Chinese group Huawei against a French researcher and by Russia Today Deutschland against one of its former journalists, Daniel Lange, who had disclosed some of the channel’s methods, and the newspaper Bild which had published these revelations.

At a time when European governments intend to strengthen their action against foreign interference, this fight takes on even more meaning. Very often, the alert on these is given by journalists, intellectuals, research organizations and sometimes simple citizens. Do we recall the major contribution, including for our intelligence services, of the Bellingcat investigations notably on the destruction of flight MH17, the chemical attacks in Syria, the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and the deadly explosion of the ammunition depot in Vrbětice?

The multiplication of legal proceedings against those who reveal the practices of certain regimes or, quite simply, criticize their actions, point out possible support, reveal certain complacencies or simply expose the procedures of underground propaganda, would constitute a major attack on freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press that would go against our fundamental values.

On a more global level, the European Parliament has taken up this issue, which many NGOs have been warning about for several years. Two committees of the European Parliament are preparing a report to fight against the intimidation of journalists and civil society organizations, which is usually referred to by the acronym SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation), that may lead to self-censorship. MEP Roberta Metsola told a press conference, “The aim [of these proceedings] is not to win, but to silence”. They enable ‘those with the means’ to force journalists to choose between putting a stop to “reporting the facts or facing a long and expensive trial”. The idea is to create common European standards, to set up a fund to help the victims of these procedures to defend themselves and to nip them in the bud, while at the same time punishing more heavily those who initiate them. Six months ago, the European Parliament had already passed a resolution along these lines and the Commission, on December 20, 2020, announced in its “European Democracy Action Plan” “an initiative to curb the abusive use of lawsuits against public participation” that distort public debate.

Certainly, many of those who propose “anti-SLAPP” measures have something else in mind than intimidation linked, directly or indirectly, to the actions of foreign states. They are thinking of journalists or civil society groups who investigate and expose corruption networks, sometimes linked to the powers that be — and some journalists have paid with their lives for this struggle. They also think of the proceedings of large multinational corporations against those who point out their actions that endanger public health and the environment or violate human rights. But the former are part of a whole that must gain in coherence.

The trial against Catherine Belton is a red alert. Not only do we owe her our full support, but we must, in Europe, draw all the legislative consequences. Emergency measures against gag orders are an integral part of the fight against the manipulation of information. We cannot succeed in this task without the possibility of naming the entities or persons who are suitable for it, launching free and independent investigations, in other words mobilizing the whole of society in this fight. Otherwise, we will lose it.

International and security affairs analyst, former head of department at the General Planning Commission, lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris, author of three official reports to the government and 22 books.

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