Only hours after a conference at the University of Aberdeen on defamation lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions and their chilling effect on freedom of expression, The Shift News received an “urgent legal letter” from a UK law firm representing Russian banker Ruben Vardanyan demanding the removal of an article on his alleged connections to the Troika Laundromat revealed by the OCCRP.
Dina Shiloh from the firm Simons Muirhead & Burton referred to the article published on 4 March under the headline ‘Troika laundromat: How the Russians moved their money into the west’. It reported revelations by the OCCRP on Vardanyan, based on a leak of 1.3 million bank transactions that showed how some US$ 5 billion of Russian money was moved into Europe and beyond.
Vardanyan is a wealthy Russian banker who once led the country’s largest private investment bank, Troika Dialog, implicated in the scandal involving 238,000 individuals and companies, as well as thousands of corporate documents, contracts and emails.
His lawyers demanded the article be removed. “The longer it remains available online the more damage it causes, and will continue to cause, to our client”.
“We remind you that a claim in defamation can be pursued against The Shift and the Editor, as well as journalists, in this jurisdiction and that – as well as damages – you and/or the Editor and or journalists would be liable for our client’s costs should such a claim be successful,” the lawyers said in the letter, which amounted to a SLAPP threat.
The Shift News has replied it will not comply with the demand for the article to be removed.
SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) are intended to financially cripple journalists through threats of lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions where it would be impossible for media workers in other countries to mount a defence.
The letter from Vardanyan’s lawyers to The Shift News was received at 1.13am, stating it was not for publication. The Shift News is publishing the letter in full in the public interest, as stated in its response to Vardanyan’s lawyers.
The lawyers said: “The facts are that our client was the CEO and principal partner of the Troika Dialog Group of companies from 1997 to 2012. The Troika Group included asset management, brokerage and investment companies, which handled hundreds of thousands of transactions per year. The recent allegations published in the media relate to a private wealth management division of Troika Dialog Group which represented a small fraction of the assets managed by the company. Our client was not involved in the operations, management, or activities of the independent arm of Troika Dialog”.
They insisted their client was a “philanthropist and social entrepreneur”. He did not launder funds from Russia or fraudulently exploit the name of Armen Ustyan. He was not any sort of “player” in a money laundering scheme, let alone a key one, his lawyers claimed.
They said the article in The Shift News was “highly damaging” to their client’s reputation. “It has potentially very serious adverse implications for him, his business and his charitable work. The article remains on your website and is accessible to an enormous number of internet users. We require the immediate removal of the article”.
The Shift News will not comply, as explained in the news portal’s response to the law firm. Vardanyan’s responses to allegations against him were reproduced in the original article.
SLAPP lawsuits continue to be a threat to journalists in Malta thanks to Justice Minister Owen Bonnici refusing a Bill in Parliament presented by the Opposition to amend the media law to tackle SLAPP lawsuits.
Bonnici insisted in Parliament there was enough protection at national level to protect journalists. Yet this latest case is the latest example of how current laws are insufficient.
The Justice Minister’s justification for refusing to protect Maltese journalists from financially crippling libel law suits in foreign jurisdictions was that this went against EU directives, which Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said was not the case.
You can read the letter from Vardanya’s lawyers here.