In the wake of Russian invasion on Ukraine, the international community has taken unprecedented steps to directly target Russian oligarchs with sanctions, freezing their assets and preventing them from carrying out financial transactions in the European Union, the UK and the United States.
Sanctions are welcomed and needed but for them to be effective, a robust system of transparency and accountability needs to be put in place, to ensure they are properly enforced.
ARTICLE 19, together with over a hundred international transparency, anti-corruption, journalist and open data organisations, has called on the European Union Institutions and the Member States to act urgently to open up all company and beneficial ownership registers across the EU.
At the moment, due to delays in the implementation of the 2019 Open Data Directive, and Member States’ failing to develop beneficial ownership registers, as required by the 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive, journalists, civil society, business, and even cross-border law enforcement cannot access the data they need to perform their work. Making the registers across the European Union open to the public would help public watchdogs, journalists and civil society organisations track and monitor the hidden wealth of Russian oligarchs, helping to ensure that the sanctions are effectively enforced.
Additionally, those who work on uncovering the dirty money ties should not be made to fear actions designed to silence them. Too often, powerful individuals use their wealth to misuse the justice system and harass or silence journalists and public watchdogs who expose their wrongdoings.
The practice known as SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) takes place across Europe and has been used by oligarchs in the UK to intimidate journalists. In 2021, ARTICLE 19 and other organisations spoke out in support of Catherine Belton and her publisher HarperCollins, as they battled a lawsuit brought against them by Roman Abramovich and the Russian state energy company Rosneft. Speaking about the lawsuits at an ARTICLE 19 event, Catherine Belton referred to the damaging consequences of SLAPPs: “It feels like the system is against you from the start and you don’t stand a chance, (…) Many UK media organisations agree to censor themselves due to the huge cost of such claims.”
This financial and psychological strain means that SLAPPs also make it harder for journalists to focus on their regular reporting. Those lawsuits lower the quality of the public debate and reduce our society’s exposure to diverse information and ideas.
ARTICLE 19 has been advocating for an urgent reform of the legal framework, introducing measures which will deter vexatious lawsuits (SLAPPs) from being filed in the first place. At the moment, no country in Europe has an anti-SLAPP legislation – states should work to decriminalise defamation and introduce measures such as early dismissal of civil cases, to ensure the lawsuits can be stopped early.