oDR: Opinion

The UK’s reputation management industry is destroying journalism. It must be stopped

Protecting media freedom and tackling corruption are intrinsically linked. The UK needs to address both to achieve either effectively

Susan Coughtrie
19 July 2021, 7.33am
(c) Charles Robertson / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

This month, British newspapers reported that an Azerbaijani millionaire DJ, Mikaela Jav, and her husband, Suleyman Javadov, had been forced to forfeit £4 million to the National Crime Agency, after admitting the funds had entered the UK illegally through a complex money laundering system known as the ‘Azerbaijan Laundromat’.

Pictures of the Javadovs’ lavish lifestyle, including four multi-million pound properties in London, ran alongside commentary pointing out that the NCA actually reclaimed £10 million less than was originally under question.

The NCA claimed the forfeiture as a victory. But a more remarkable moment came when the Evening Standard succeeded in overturning a court-issued anonymity order on the couple last month, which had prevented the media from naming the Javadovs.

Lawyers for Jav, a cousin of the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, and her husband, the son of a former deputy energy minister, stated that their clients’ funds were from legitimate business dealings and that they had “no knowledge of the route of transfer; and nor do they have any personal links to the Azerbaijan Laundromat.”

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However, the fact that a media outlet had to pursue an expensive, two-year legal battle in order to prevent what the judge in the case ruled would have been a “disproportionate interference with the principle of open justice” should spark some alarming questions for those involved in media freedom, transparency and anti-corruption efforts in the UK.

Indeed, this case intersects with a much larger, more troubling story – how the UK’s financial and legal systems not only service at best ‘questionable’ money flows originating from countries with less-than-stellar democratic records, but that the country is also home to legal and reputation laundering services that can be utilised to suppress public scrutiny into, or whitewash over, potential wrongdoing.

The reputation managers’ goal is not necessarily to win in court, but rather to intimidate, to consume the financial and psychological resources of the target, so they simply give up

It’s a situation known only too well to investigative journalist Paul Radu, a co-founder of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) which uncovered the Azerbaijan Laundromat in 2017. OCCRP found that between 2012 and 2014, $2.9 billion had been laundered through a complex scheme involving four shell companies registered in the UK. These funds were then used by members of Azerbaijan’s political elite to “pay off European politicians, buy luxury goods, launder money, and otherwise benefit themselves”.

This scheme was in use at a time when there was a severe crackdown on civil society and independent media inside Azerbaijan, including the arrest and imprisonment of Radu’s colleague Khadija Ismayilova. In February 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that there was no “reasonable suspicion” that Ismayilova committed the crimes she was accused of; rather, her imprisonment was an attempt to silence her journalism.

Meanwhile Radu, despite being a Romanian citizen working for a media organisation registered in the US, found himself pursued through the London libel courts in 2018 by a sitting Azerbaijani MP. In January 2020, on the eve of the trial, the MP withdrew the case and made a settlement favourable to Radu: the articles in question stayed online – albeit with a disclaimer. A positive ending perhaps, but for two years the case had drained OCCRP’s financial and human resources, forced Radu to hand over swathes of information during an ‘invasive’ discovery process and used up countless hours the media outlet could have instead spent on their reporting.

If the UK government wants to deliver on its commitments to protect media freedom – both at an international level, through its leadership of the Global Media Freedom Coalition, and domestically, having established the National Committee on the Safety of Journalists – then it must also fully examine how illicit finance and corruption feeds into violations against media freedom, both here and abroad.

Despite the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s damning findings in its July 2020 Russia Report, regarding the existence of a ‘London Laundromat’, supported by a “growth industry of enablers”, the UK appears to be backsliding on anti-corruption commitments. This isin contrast to the US, where President Biden’s administration has made a pointed shift to address corruption as a core national security interest.

Aside from Russia and Azerbaijan, there are other countries with poor human rights records whose activity in the UK is cause for concern. After the activist and journalist Roman Protasevich was seized by Belarusian authorities, by forcing down a Ryanair plane in May 2021, questions were raised about the London Stock Exchange’s role in supporting the Belarusian dictatorship. In the wake of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, a Guardian investigation found that “British firms [were] earning millions of pounds from efforts to improve the image of the kingdom and its regional allies in recent years.”

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Minsk, September 2020 | (c) gidenoia / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

This type of ‘positive’ reputation management comes alongside a far more insidious issue: attempts to remove ‘uncomfortable information’ from the public domain or prevent it from getting there in the first place. The case against Radu is part of a growing body of evidence pointing to the use of legal intimidation and SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). A term originally devised in the US, SLAPPs are legal actions taken against journalists, as well as whistleblowers, activists or others speaking out in the public interest.

Thus, lawyers can easily threaten legal action on behalf of super-wealthy clients. But journalists, especially freelancers or small media outlets, find it difficult to mount the financial resources and legal expertise to respond. The reputation managers’ goal is not necessarily to win in court, but rather to intimidate, to consume the financial and psychological resources of the target, so they simply give up. If successful, they can create an information vacuum about the initial subject matter as well as the fact a legal challenge took place.

In a survey of 63 investigative journalists reporting on financial crime and corruption in 41 countries, conducted by the UK’s Foreign Policy Centre last year, three quarters of respondents reported receiving communications threatening legal action as a result of their work. Moreover, the UK was the leading international source of these threats, with almost as many originating from there as from EU countries and the US combined.

Reforms to English and Welsh law in 2013 intended to crack down on libel tourism failed to take into account that London is a major business and property hub. This creates a low bar for those wealthy and powerful enough to establish the necessary reputational standing to pursue a defamation case in the UK, a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction where mounting a defence is a particularly costly and lengthy process. As Radu himself put it: “The people suing journalists in the UK rely on these huge legal bills being so intimidating that the journalists won’t even try to defend themselves.”

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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Journalists based in the UK are not exempt from this challenge. British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown helped uncover the 1MDB corruption scandal in Malaysia, and in return was pursued through the UK courts from 2017 to 2019 by a Malaysian politician. As in Radu’s case, the claimant also eventually withdrew and made a settlement in Rewcastle Brown’s favour. She has spoken of how fighting back against this challenge was financially devastating, wiping out her pension and savings. However, she refused to give in to demands for “the sort of retraction that could be spun into a total discrediting of myself and my wider reporting on corruption in Malaysia”. The results of her investigations led to the collapse of the former Malaysian government and the trial of the then prime minister, yet she continues to be subjected to legal threats.

Every time a journalist does speak out, we get a glimpse at the extent of the hidden problem lying beneath the surface. In May 2021, journalists from openDemocracy described how they had “burn[t] through thousands of pounds and precious time” during a two-year legal battle with DUP politician Jeffrey Donaldson that never went to court. Instead, the dispute was dragged out until its time limit expired last year.

Despite the significant impact on their finances and time, they nevertheless described how “the psychological toll was even higher”. This toll on journalists is often overlooked when discussing such cases, which tend to be viewed simply from the perspective of following ‘due legal process’. In addition to legal threats, there are examples of other tactics being used to intimidate journalists. During his five-year investigation into Wirecard, a German financial technology firm, Financial Times journalist Dan McCrum described being subject to “furious online abuse, hacking, electronic eavesdropping, physical surveillance [as well as] some of London’s most expensive lawyers”.

Stronger leadership is needed in the UK to tackle both the safety of journalists and the fight against corruption. A first step would be to recognise the symbiotic nature between the two

When Jeremy Hunt, then foreign secretary, opened a conference launching the Global Media Freedom Coalition in London two years ago, he stated that, “The strongest safeguard against the dark side of power is accountability and scrutiny… Real accountability comes from the risk of exposure by a media that cannot be controlled or suborned.” Hunt was referring largely to the situation in authoritarian countries. But it is increasingly important to understand the effect foreign influence can have on journalists’ abilities to ask questions and to report transparently about matters of public interest in the UK.

More than 20 organisations, part of an informal UK anti-SLAPP coalition, have now launched a policy paper on countering legal intimidation and SLAPPs. The paper calls for a formal parliamentary inquiry to examine this issue in the UK, including the impact on those subjected to these tactics as well as the knock-on effect on public scrutiny, including investigations into corruption.

There is a need for legislative and regulatory reform, potentially in the shape of a UK Anti-SLAPP law. This would follow similar initiatives that have been advanced in the US and Canada, and in the European Union, which is examining proposals for an Anti-SLAPP Directive.

Stronger leadership is needed in the UK to tackle both the safety of journalists and the fight against corruption. A first step would be to recognise the symbiotic nature between the two. You cannot effectively protect and promote media freedom without first addressing the financial and legal systems that support attacks against it.

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