Four media outlets in the UK and US are facing defamation claims after publishing investigative reports into alleged assets of a fund named after former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), Open Democracy and the Telegraph received a number of “pre-action” letters between May and August claiming their reporting was inaccurate and caused financial damage to UK-registered companies.
A claim was subsequently filed in the High Court on August 16 but the publishers are yet to be served.
The legal action has renewed debate over whether tactical suits against public participation (SLAPS) are being used to chill public interest journalism.
Dominic Raab, who was justice secretary until he was ousted by Liz Truss, announced proposals in July to give courts in England and Wales greater powers to dismiss legal actions against journalists and publishers writing in the public interest, which found. Lack of competence at the initial stage.
The claim against TBIJ, OpenDemocracy and the Telegraph was brought by Zusan Technologies, a company registered at Companies House in the UK, and the Nazarbayev Fund, a private fund. The fund is suing the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in the US, seeking more than $75,000 (£68,000) in compensatory damages and punitive damages.
The articles in question are reporting on alleged financial connections between Zusan, the Nazarbayev Fund and Nazarbayev and his family. Lawyers for Zusan and the fund say the allegations are false and defamatory.
US law firm Boes Schiller Flexner has been appointed to represent Zusan and the fund, and said it is not representing Nazarbayev.
A spokesperson for the fund and Jusan said: “We look forward to proving in court that the report challenged in the case is false. We are not owned or controlled by, nor do we benefit, Mr. Nazarbayev. Our only goal is to support public education in Kazakhstan.”
Nazarbayev is accepted as “Chairman of the Supreme Board of Directors”. Nazarbayev Fund (NF)” but a source familiar with the dispute – who declined to be identified – said he played no active role in the operation or functioning of the fund and had no role or connection, directly or indirectly, with Zusan.
Open Democracy 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, not-for-profit media organization being threatened by rich and powerful companies for reporting what we believe is in the public interest.”
The Telegraph did not respond to a request for comment.
TBIJ and Open Democracy have warned that defending themselves in the High Court could wipe out all their funding, which would have a profound impact on their ability to continue public interest journalism. They stated the demands “Potentially financially devastating”. The two outlets have already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on the case.
Geoghegan said: “Open Democracy and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have taken the unusual step of going public with this because we think it’s important for people to understand how legal threats are used in this country and we are determined to protect ourselves.”
He noted that, currently, defending claims deemed slaps “can cost a fortune, putting many defendants out of the game and deterring other journalists from new investigations”.
Geoghegan added: “This case has already cost Open Democracy thousands of pounds and we need the public’s help to defend ourselves.”
Sources familiar with the dispute stressed that the legal claim should not be described as a slap.
They said: “To give them such a character would wrongly presume that they were not filed in good faith and therefore presume the truth of the falsehoods in the publications.”
They added that the fund and Zusan “reserve the right to take legal action to vindicate their reputation regarding false and damaging allegations and to stop the publication of such falsehoods”.
TBIJ chief executive Rosina Breen said: “We strongly believe this [sort of] Public interest journalism is vital to a functioning and transparent democracy, and an absolute necessity to ensure sound financial governance and accountability.”
the slap came under the spotlight Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions against oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. Some have previously been involved in high-profile legal actions against journalists and book publishers.
As part of its response to the Slaps inquiry, the government proposed a cap on costs – to “properly defend meritless cases” – which could be made by ministers under secondary legislation without requiring parliamentary approval.
Nick Williams, Policy and Campaigns Officer at the Index of Censorship, says the threat is being faced The publishers appeared to “symbolize the growing use of slaps to target and silence open reporting”.
He added: “For too long, the UK has been at the center of the world’s rich, powerful and opaque legal threats to stifle media freedom and the public’s right to know.
“In July, the UK Government committed to bringing forward a series of measures to target slaps, and these threats demonstrate the urgency of the issue. We stand in solidarity with Open Democracy and TBIJ and all others facing such threats and reiterate our call for swift and bold action protecting free expression.”
OCCRP, a nonprofit news network registered in the United States, is the subject of a defamation complaint filed July 29 in U.S. District Court in Maryland.
Kazakhstan is ranked 122nd out of 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. Nazarbayev was the country’s president from 1991 until his resignation in 2019.