The Great Enabler: SLAPPs, Sanctions & the UK’s Kleptocracy Problem
The current reforms proposed by the UK Government to address SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) have been widely seen as a part of their response to the ongoing war in Ukraine. While interest in SLAPPs had already been growing, the Ministry of Justice launched their call for evidence on SLAPPs in March 2022, just two weeks after the Russian invasion started.
Speakers will discuss what, if anything, has changed since February, the role and effectiveness of sanctions and if these have (or have not) lessened the impact of SLAPPs. While much attention has been placed on Russia, this event will focus on the UK’s role as the ‘enabler’ both of the corrupt wealth being exported out of countries, like Russia, but also as a hub for services (legal and beyond) to shut down scrutiny, including through the use of SLAPPs. These systems are open to abuse not just by Russians, but the current situation in Russia has shown what can happen if we continue to fail to do anything effectively about it.
This event is being organised as part of the second UK Anti-SLAPP Conference, which aims to spotlight solutions to legal threats against media freedom. The conference will take place in a hybrid format, accessible both online and in-person, in London on Monday 28 and Tuesday 29 November. To register to attend online, and get updates on speakers and sessions, please sign up through Eventbrite. Space to attend in person will be limited, so please write to email@example.com to apply.
In 2021, the legal cases initiated by four Russian oligarchs and the Russian state against the journalist Catherine Belton, author of the book Putin’s People, and her publisher, HarperCollins, were instrumental in creating public awareness of the dangers of SLAPPs.
SLAPPs are brought by the powerful and wealthy, eager to avoid scrutiny, to intimidate journalists into either not publishing or removing information from the public domain and penalise them for critical reporting. The use of this tactic to undermine the media’s role as a public watchdog may have proliferated globally, but the UK has been identified as a jurisdiction of particular concern. In 2020, the Foreign Policy Centre survey found that the UK was the leading international source of legal threats against journalists working to uncover financial crime and corruption.
While media freedom in an oligarch’s home country, such as Russia, is often highly restricted, with corruption often motivating and enabling violations against independent voices, these legal threats can be seen as a ‘legitimate’ way to suppress information in countries like the UK and US. Such legal action can however have a significant impact, draining a media outlet of its financial resources, and create a wider chilling effect on media freedom.
Western financial and legal systems are far from passively servicing this corruption. Aside from utilising anonymous shell companies to launder dirty money and parking it in luxury property, kleptocrats are also seeking to control their image and garner influence in the West. Law firms and PR companies enable this reputation laundering, including through initiating legal threats against those seeking to investigate apparent wrongdoing or share concerns regarding dirty money being used for political or charitable donations.
The US response under President Biden has been to classify corruption as ‘a core national security interest’. ‘Historic’ legislation has already been passed through US Congress, taking aim at ending anonymous business practices and proposals have been made for an Enablers Act, which would require greater checks by lawyers, PR firms, accountants and others as to the source of their client’s money.
By contrast, concerns raised about illicit finance flowing through the UK, including in the Russia Report released by the Intelligence and Security Committee in July 2020, had resulted in little action from the UK Government. That was until February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine and the Government rushed to adopt a number of legislative initiatives in the Economic Crime Bill, namely to create a register of overseas entities and their beneficial owners, as well as introduced sanctions against a number of Russian oligarchs, including those who had sued Catherine Belton and HarperCollins.
London and Online
Catherine Belton, Investigative journalist and author of Putin’s People
Galina Arapova, Media Defence Lawyer, Russia
Franz Wild, Editor, The Enablers Project, The Bureau for Investigative Journalists
Dame Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the APPG on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax
Chair: Edward Lucas, Author, European and transatlantic security consultant and fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)