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A victory for anti-SLAPP measures

Christopher Steele
Photo: YouTube

A US court upheld an anti-Slapp motion filed by a former British spy against three Russian oligarchs who sued him over allegations he made about the Trump campaign and its links with Moscow.

Former MI6 officer turned private investigator Christopher Steele and his intelligence firm Orbis ended up in court after oligarchs Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan filed a defamation suit after a dossier was leaked and published in early 2017 on Buzzfeed.

More than a year later, the oligarchs sued Steele in Washington DC. In March, Steele  with a motion filed under anti-Slapp legislation, arguing that the Russians were trying to shut down a legitimate subject for public debate.

The Russians own stakes in Moscow-based Alfa Bank – the Russian bank that the dossier said assisted Russian operatives and Russian President Vladimir Putin in attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election and other allegedly criminal acts. Alfa Bank denies this.

On Monday, a judge in the District of Columbia upheld a motion by Steele to have the oligarchs’ case thrown out without determining whether whether the dossier – which Donald Trump has repeatedly dismissed as “fake” – was “accurate or not accurate”, The Guardian reported.

Earlier this year, the Maltese government voted against amendments proposed by the Opposition to protect journalists against foreign lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by crippling them financially. The amendment was rejected, with Justice minister Owen Bonnici saying it would go against EU directives, something which Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova dismissed.

SLAPP lawsuits have been used in Malta to intimidate investigative journalists and media houses by the now notorious Pilatus Bank as well as Henley & Partners, the concessionaires of citizenship-for-cash scheme. The practice was used against assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The Shift was also threatened with a SLAPP lawsuit by Henley & Partners in the first few weeks of operation.

Read more: Henley and Partners threatens legal action against The Shift

The European Commission states that an EU member state has a right to legislate against SLAPP originating in a jurisdiction outside the EU and a right to protect their nationals against SLAPP originating from within the EU as long as it is done in good faith and in line with declared public policy.

In his ruling, the judge said that the publication of the dossier was covered by the First Amendment, which protects free speech and that the Russian billionaires had filed to prove that Steele knew that some information in the dossier was inaccurate,and had acted “with reckless disregard as to its falsity”.

The judge threw out the oligarchs’ argument that Steele was not protected by the First Amendment because he was British, saying this was “ironic” given the fact the billionaires had Russian and Israeli citizenships, and had turned to a US court.

“The Steele dossier generated so much interest and attention in the US precisely because its contents relate to active public debates here,” he said.

Steele’s attorney Christy Hull Eikhoff said the judgement was “thorough, well-reasoned and firmly supported in the law”. “We will continue to defend against baseless attacks on Chris and hope that the result of this case will be a message to those who seek to intimidate Chris and his company.”

This month, US President Donald Trump called Steele a “lowlife” on Twitter and described the dossier as “phony”, “discredited” and paid for by “Crooked Hillary”.

Steele still faces a libel claim in London filed by a Russian businessman who was also mentioned in the dossier.

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