Four media outlets in the UK and the US are facing libel claims after publishing investigative reports into allegations about the assets of a fund named after the former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), openDemocracy and the Telegraph received several “pre-action” letters between May and August claiming their reporting was inaccurate and caused financial losses to a UK-registered company.
A claim was subsequently filed at the high court on 16 August but the publishers have not yet been served.
The legal action has reignited the debate whether strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps) are being used to chill public-interest journalism.
Dominic Raab, who was justice secretary until he was removed by Liz Truss, had announced proposals in July for courts in England and Wales to be given greater powers to dismiss legal actions against reporters and publishers writing in the public interest, which were found to be lacking in merit at an early stage.
The claim against TBIJ, openDemocracy and the Telegraph has been brought on behalf of Jusan Technologies, a company registered at Companies House in the UK, and the Nazarbayev Fund Private Fund. The fund is also suing the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in the US, with a claim for compensatory damages of more than $75,000 (£68,000) and punitive damages.
The articles complained of had been reporting on allegations of financial links between Jusan, the Nazarbayev fund, and Nazarbayev and his family. Lawyers for Jusan and the fund said the allegations were incorrect and defamatory.
The US law firm Boies Schiller Flexner has been hired to represent Jusan and the fund, and it said it was not representing Nazarbayev.
A spokesperson for the fund and Jusan said: “We look forward to proving in court that the reporting challenged in the lawsuits is false. We are not owned or controlled by Mr Nazarbayev, nor do we benefit him. Our sole mission is to support public education in Kazakhstan.”
Nazarbayev is accepted to be the “chairman of the supreme board of directors for the Nazarbayev fund (NF)” but a source familiar with the dispute – who declined to be identified – said he had not played any active role in the operations or functioning of the fund and had never, directly or indirectly, had any role or connection with Jusan.
Peter Geoghegan, the editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, 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 organisation being threatened by rich and powerful organisations for reporting on what we believe is in the public interest.”
The Telegraph did not respond to requests for comment.
TBIJ and openDemocracy warned that defending themselves at the high court could wipe out all their funding, which would have a profound effect on their ability to continue pursuing public-interest journalism. They said the claims were “potentially financially ruinous”. The two outlets have already spent tens of thousands of pounds on the case.
Geoghegan said: “OpenDemocracy and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have taken the unusual step of going public with this because we think it is important for people to understand how legal threats are used in this country and because we are determined to defend ourselves.”
He pointed out that, at present, defending claims thought to be Slapps could “cost a fortune, with the result that many defendants are priced out of the game and other reporters will be deterred from fresh investigations”.
Geoghegan added: “This case has already cost openDemocracy tens of thousands of pounds and we need the public’s help to defend ourselves.”
The source familiar with the dispute insisted the legal claim should not be described as a Slapp.
They said: “Characterising them as such would incorrectly presuppose that they were not filed in good faith and would therefore assume the truth of the falsehoods in the publications.”
They added that the fund and Jusan were “entitled to take legal steps to vindicate their reputations in respect of false and damaging allegations, and to put a stop to the publication of such falsehoods”.
Rozina Breen, the chief executive of TBIJ, said: “We firmly believe this [sort of] vital public interest journalism is essential for a functioning and transparent democracy, and an absolute necessity in ensuring sound financial governance and accountability.”
Slapps came under the spotlight after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent imposition of sanctions against oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. Some had previously been involved in high-profile legal actions against journalists and book publishers.
As part of its response to the inquiry into Slapps, the government had also proposed a cap on costs – to “enable meritless cases to be properly defended” – which can be created by ministers under secondary legislation without the need for parliamentary approval.
Nik Williams, the policy and campaigns officer at the Index on Censorship, said the threat facing the publishers appeared “emblematic of the growing use of Slapps to target and silence open reporting”.
He added: “For too long, the UK has been the centre of legal threats brought by the world’s wealthy, powerful and opaque to stifle media freedom and the public’s right to know.
“In July, the UK government committed to bring forward a set of measures to target Slapps, and these threats demonstrate the urgency of the issue. We stand in solidarity with openDemocracy and TBIJ, and all others facing such threats, and reiterate our call for swift and bold measures that protect free expression.”
OCCRP, a non-profit news network registered in the US, is the subject of a defamation complaint filed at the US district court of Maryland on 29 July.
Kazakhstan ranks 122nd out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Nazarbayev was the country’s president from 1991 until he resigned in 2019.