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Prigozhin vs Higgins: SLAPPed by the Hand of the Law

Staff writer Tim Gribble scrutinises our government’s attitude towards the protection of the free press. Charting the story of Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, he makes a compelling case for systematic change.

Until March 2022, the head of a mercenary army and “transnational crime agency” was suing an investigative journalist in British courts. Eliot Higgins was facing a libel case brought by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the infamous Wagner Group, over revelations published by Bellingcat. Although the case fell through following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is just one part of a prolonged trend of similar lawsuits in the UK threatening journalists.

There have long been concerns about the UK’s defamation laws being used against journalists. Leaked emails now show that the UK Treasury aided in the bypassing of sanctions on Prigozhin. Sanctioned individuals retain certain ‘basic’ rights, including legal representation, but this has been abused as a loophole to allow powerful sanctioned organisations to use British courts to attack their political opponents. Evidence proving the complicity of the Treasury in the case against Higgins calls not only for accelerated legislative reform but for an investigation into the current government.

Open Source Exposé

Higgins has a rather remarkable story, going from working unsatisfactory administration jobs to becoming one the world’s most important journalists in the last decade. More about him and the origins of Bellingcat can be found in the book ‘We Are Bellingcat’.

Bellingcat is a success story of independent civilian journalism and harnessing the internet for good. Higgins and his colleagues have exposed some of the biggest human rights violations, hate crimes and injustices in the past decade. All of this using openly available online information. They linked the anti-aircraft vehicle used to shoot down the MH17 passenger plane by separatists in Ukraine back to the Kremlin. They unearthed evidence that Alexei Navalny was poisoned by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). They found that American weapons were used in atrocities in Yemen. All in the face of organised disinformation campaigns – the breadth and importance of their work is staggering.

Meanwhile, they monitor trends in the kind of dangerous online conspiracy theories which have resulted in several mass shootings, such as that in Christchurch. They also host online workshops designed to inform interested citizens about how to trace information online. They are a team of ordinary people searching for real justice with just a few computers and a lot of dedication.

As is to be expected, successful investigations into dangerous people have created powerful enemies. Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as ‘Putin’s chef’, and his Wagner army were the subject of many of Bellingcat’s open-source investigations. Officially, Prigozhin is known for his catering empire – investigative journalism by Bellingcat and others has shown a web of illegal, abusive and dangerous connections under his unassuming facade.

For a long time, Prigozhin had been connected to the Wagner Group, a mercenary army involved in several conflicts around the world. They have been tied to war crimes in Libya even before their involvement in the Ukraine war. Prigozhin long-denied involvement with Wagner Group, but he is now openly running their operations. Wagner currently commands 50,000 fighters in Ukraine according to the UK Ministry of Defence. Prigozhin has recently overseen a recruitment drive of Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine, a design of Putin’s growing desperation.

In August 2020 Bellingcat published an investigation exposing Prigozhin, conclusively tying him not only to Wagner Group but also to a vast disinformation engine that promoted Brexit and attempted to influence African governments. Most importantly, they established that his operations were closely integrated with the Russian Defence Ministry and other parts of the Russian state.

In 2021 Prigozhin launched a notorious libel case against Higgins, accusing him of defamation. This was a brazen attempt at legal censorship. It is deeply troubling that he was so easily able to launch a legal attack on a British journalist – but it is not surprising. Journalists have long been targeted when within UK jurisdiction.

A SLAPP in the Face

As Higgins expressed in a statement to The Intercept, the case was a cynical attempt at legal intimidation and censorship, especially considering his central role in exposing Prigozhin as leader of the Wagner Group. Higgins has taken legal action, accusing them of filing a ‘Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation’, known as a SLAPP.

The case against Higgins eventually fell through due to Prigozhin’s continued failure to comply with court orders after the invasion of Ukraine. But this still left the journalist with a legal bill over of £70,000. This is a large sum of money for a member of a non-profit that relies on donations. Most worryingly, this is not an isolated situation.

The UK has a reputation for attracting these kinds of cases. The UK is known for its claimant-friendly defamation laws and its susceptibility to SLAPPs. In 2013 there was legislation passed that aimed to reform defamation laws, but the UK remains a jurisdiction which only weakly protects the freedom of the press. The Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) warned in 2020 that these kinds of cases in the EU and UK were on the rise. In April 2022 they released a 105-page report emphasising the issue as a distinctly British one. Entitled ‘London calling’, it was a cry for action directed at the British government.

Even after the Higgins case was dropped in March 2022, four news outlets faced similar libel suits for reporting on former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. This was labelled a “clear attempt to intimidate independent investigative journalism” by Peter Geoghegan, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy (one of the publishers accused). For too long it has it been unacceptably easy to file these lawsuits against small, often not-for-profit organisations.

Journalists should not have to plead for their government’s support against legal intimidation, but many journalists and outlets are one expensive lawsuit away from extinction. Members of publications including The Economist, The Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Telegraph, Reuters, Private Eye and Bloomberg (united by no political position) signed an open letter in November 2022 calling on the UK government to “keep pace and contribute to this global movement to protect against SLAPPs.” This came shortly after legislation was passed in the EU to combat their use.

UK courts still host aggressive legal action against important, independent journalists. The UK has promised further action and has exercised a call for evidence on the matter. This is a hopeful sign that reforming legislation is to be proposed. However, recent leaked emails in regard to the Higgin’s case reveal a deeper disregard for the protection of journalists within our government.

A Helping Hand

Recent leaked emails have opened our eyes further missteps by the British government. The recent investigation by openDemocracy revealed that the UK Treasury helped Prigozhin and his UK lawyers to bypass British sanctions in order to launch a libel case against Higgins. openDemocracy’s investigation was published on 23 January and was made possible by the hacking and release of a vast cache of emails from one of Russia’s biggest law firms. The findings are a shocking comment on the UK government’s regard for the protection of its own journalists, as well as the sanctions they themselves imposed.

Prigozhin had been sanctioned by the UK since 2020 over support for mercenaries in Libya. His Wagner Group has been investigated for the use of banned landmines and even chemical weapons. openDemocracy’s investigation found that the UK Treasury, specifically the little-known ‘Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation’ (OFSI), facilitated the selective bypassing of sanctions on order for this case to pursued. This is regular practice for sanctioned individuals who need to pay for legal representation – but this was effectively greenlighting Wagner money being used to pursue journalists within the UK.

The investigation found that OFSI granted a license for British law firm Discreet Law to take the case on Prigozhin’s behalf. As he was not allowed to visit the UK, OFSI also permitted representatives to go to Russia to finalise details. Emails show that they gave permission for lawyers to fly business class to St Petersburg. Prigozhin was then able to directly pay the lawyers though a transfer of funds, the UK bank only temporarily withholding the funds due to the sanctions.

What’s more, emails between him and the law firm confirm that Prigozhin aimed to use this case to refute the sanctions against him in the case of victory. Indeed, this was only one case within a wider scheme of using European lawyers to circumvent, undercut, and attempt to remove sanctions against Prigozhin and Wagner officials, as uncovered by a Financial Times investigation in January.

To recap: a British journalist published a damning report exposing Prigozhin for war crimes. He and the Wagner Group were then sanctioned by the United Kingdom. Prigozhin then filed a libel case against the journalist, attracted by our claimant friendly defamation laws, hoping that victory through legal and financial intimidation could be used as evidence to help overturn sanctions. Instead of making it difficult for a sanctioned warlord to pursue an independent reporter, the UK government allowed him to fund this attack on the free press.

The potency of this fiasco is highlighted when it’s noted that the Treasury was then under the control of current UK Prime Minister (PM), Rishi Sunak. In the words of MP Margaret Hodge, chair of the cross-party Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax group, “it is absolutely ludicrous that the government stands accused of evading the sanctions it itself imposed”. Labour have since called for a probe into the Treasury’s role.

UK jurisdiction has for too long been a hotspot for ‘libel tourism’. Attempts to change our relaxed defamation laws have clearly been unsuccessful. But openDemocracy’s investigation suggest the issues may be more deeply embedded than previously conceived. The leaked emails show that the UK Treasury, under our current PM, essentially facilitated the circumnavigation of its own sanctions.

The journalistic landscape is challenging without this state of affairs. With the trend of clickbait headlines and the ever-present problem of disinformation, it is Higgins, Bellingcat, and the organisations dedicated to the truth over profit that our government should seek to protect. Not only must we quickly respond with legislation, but it would be ludicrous to not investigate this decision. Were senior ministers conscious of this de facto bypass of sanctions? Was this a single event, or evidence of a wider pattern?

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