They own sports teams and newspapers. They travel in Gulfstreams and mega-yachts. They buy Renoirs and Matisses and entire buildings in New York, London, and Miami. They give endowments to museums, think tanks, and universities. Most came from nothing in the collapsing Soviet Union and now they have everything, including their own definitional category: oligarchs. More than mere billionaires, they are the plenipotentiaries of illiberal or autocratic governments, and their fortunes, empires, and freedoms depend entirely on their willingness to carry out the bidding of those governments.
And for decades, they have been waging a not-so-quiet assault on the First Amendment, using litigation threats and public relations teams to stifle or silence critical journalism on their activities. As our report “Kill the Messenger,” published last month by the Free Russia Foundation, explains, oligarchs are even more thin-skinned than Donald Trump when it comes to media scrutiny.
Where these men don’t manage to get a story killed, retroactively “edited,” or wholly taken offline, they still create a deterrent against newsgatherers who would sooner not pursue an investigation than be forced to go the rounds with someone with far greater resources. As our report makes clear, outdated civil litigation rules have become a playground for the foreign-born super-rich to smother stories that are squarely in the American interest to be published.
“Kill the Messenger” features anecdotes from prominent American reporters (who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity) detailing just how vitiating writing and publishing an expose on an oligarch can be. One said that a PR team bombarded them with emails and phone calls which, in their words, “literally verged on harassment”—all of it because the oligarch they’d written about couldn’t stand being described as an “oligarch.” Another journalist confided that up to “50 percent” of their reporting on Russian oligarchs’ networks in the West had been cut owing to their editor’s and publishers’ fears of poking these deep-pocketed beasts. Just this year, lawyers for the former first family in a former Soviet Central Asian country demanded that one of my articles, published an American outlet, be deleted wholesale, simply for reporting on details of their alleged use of shell companies to move millions.
It’s no longer just threats. Oligarchs have begun taking to American courts in order to make sure their escapades never make it into the American press. In 2017, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska enlisted a white-shoe law firm, Boies Schiller Flexner, to file a lawsuit against the Associated Press for what he claimed were “defamatory statements” about his relationship with his former business partner, the now-imprisoned lobbyist Paul Manafort. This was no ordinary suit. Deripaska had been sanctioned by the United States for his outsized role in the Kremlin’s kleptocracy and widely known as a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Moreover, he’d been implicated in the Russian interference campaign in the United States, as detailed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
In his judgment against the plaintiff, the American judge found that Deripaska didn’t even bother to dispute any of the facts laid out about his past dealings with Manafort. “[T]here can be no doubt a public controversy exists relating to Russian oligarchs acting on behalf of the Russian government,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle. Even though Deripaska lost his case (he filed another one still pending in Russian court), the AP reporters he targeted nonetheless sacrificed time, energy, and their organization’s resources to fight the allegations. All this just to uphold their substantiated and painstaking work.
Lawfare isn’t the only arrow in the oligarch’s quiver. Yevgeny Prigozhin, known colloquially as “Putin’s chef,” was sanctioned and indicted by the U.S. government for financing a social media operation designed to sway the 2016 U.S. election. But it wasn’t just tawdry memes and fake rallies that he and his network pushed on Americans. Some of the accounts cultivated at his notorious “troll farm” in St. Petersburg masqueraded as American journalists, claiming to be publishing stories in cities from Seattle to El Paso, not only providing actual “fake news” to unsuspecting American users, but further eroding broader trust in American media, a theme now happily pushed from the White House.
Some oligarchs, though, prefer to wield First Amendment protections to their own ends, effectively subverting American mechanisms for their own illiberal campaigns. Konstantin Malofeev and Vladimir Yakunin, both sanctioned for their role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and both of whom are worth billions—have repeatedly bankrolled far-right Christian fundamentalist groups in this country, all of it, apparently, perfectly legally. Apart from sharing a common reactionary worldview, they also use their deep-pocketed “charities” as a means to skirt foreign lobbying restrictions and gain a powerful beachhead in the U.S. political establishment.
The good news is there are a number of solutions on the horizon.
First, Congress must pass legislation—known colloquially as “anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or “anti-SLAPP,” bills—which would discourage oligarchs from filing frivolous and costly libel suits against American reporters and news organizations. Numerous states have passed similar laws, although the scattershot jurisdictional approach allows for easy workarounds, such as filing in another state, which bad faith actors can exploit.
Even those states that have such legislation on the books can see their provisions, which help protect American journalists from the encroaching threats of these malign foreign forces, can be whittled down. Just last year, for instance, Texas placed limits on the kinds of statements protected by its anti-SLAPP regulations, and dropped protections for coverage of things like non-compete agreements, effectively making it easier for companies, including those connected to foreign oligarchs, to intimidate whistleblowers. Courts have also struck down state-level anti-SLAPP provisions (on, ironically, constitutional grounds), including most recently in 2016 in Minnesota.
Rather than take such a piecemeal approach to the issue, the only solution is federal anti-SLAPP legislation covering all American states, territories, and jurisdictions simultaneously. And all the better if it specifically targets those working on behalf of hostile foreign governments or who have been sanctioned by the Treasury Department or even indicted by the Justice Department for doing so.
Congress has clearly expressed interest in the issue, going so far as to hold hearings on the topic just a few years ago. And state anti-SLAPP laws can be used for conceptualizing a national law. California goes as far as any to protect all speech connected to issues of public interest from inane lawsuits. But a host of lobby groups—including and especially trial lawyers who profit off the bloated old system—have stalled momentum at the federal level, preferring to allow American media organizations to remain open to such costly litigation, including from malign foreign oligarchs.
The second necessary reform the U.S. should also pass is a federal shield law to protect journalists’ confidential sources. A rather obvious goal of an oligarch’s taking a reporter to court is to try to chivvy out via discovery who’s talked him anonymously or on background, the better to then retaliate and deter others from going to the press. The Atlantic Council’s Anders Aslund found in 2019 that numerous Russian entities filed suit in U.S. jurisdictions for the express purpose of abusing discovery, with some judges apparently unaware that libel was simply a pretext at ferreting out information.
Whistleblower protection, either bundled into an anti-SLAAP bill or introduced on its own, wouldn’t just indemnify a beleaguered Fourth Estate; it would also bolster U.S. national security, and continue to patch holes in the U.S.’s broader anti-money laundering regime.