U.S. Libel Case Over Russian Poisoning Takes Aim at Kremlin Propaganda

A lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan alleges defamation by two Kremlin-controlled television stations widely available in the United States concerning the infamous poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in the U.K. 12 years ago. But the litigation has a much larger aim: to highlight the scope and danger of Russian propaganda today.

The case, Alex Goldfarb v. Channel One Russia and RT America, contends that the two channels maligned the plaintiff, a retired professor of microbiology and human rights activist. The complaint cites repeated broadcasts of false accusations in March and April this year that it was Goldfarb who had killed Litvinenko, who was his close friend. They also suggested Goldfarb even murdered his own wife. A formal British inquiry had concluded beyond a reasonable doubt in 2016 that two Russian former KGB agents poisoned Litvinenko with radioactive Polonium-210. The well-publicized inquiry also found a “strong probability” that the murder was committed at the behest of the Russian government and probably on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. As for Goldfarb’s wife, she died of cancer in 2010.

The broadcasts at issue occurred in the aftermath of the latest poisoning of Russian ex-pats in Britain – that of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, on March 4 in Salisbury, England. Suspicion immediately fell on the Kremlin, especially in light of the previous high-profile poisoning of Litvinenko 12 years earlier. Goldfarb says the timing of the broadcasts hearkening to a 12-year-old case was no coincidence.

“The aim of it is, of course, to distance the Russian government [from culpability] by saying that both poisonings have nothing to do with Russia,” Goldfarb told an audience during a Sept. 11 event at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. The broadcasts also accused him of being an agent of the CIA. Goldfarb, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in New Jersey, moved to the United States 40 years ago. He once worked with Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. He also served as an advisor to Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros in the 1990s and director of the billionaire’s projects in Russia advancing open society during the turbulent transition from communist rule after the breakup of the Soviet Union. (Full disclosure, Soros’s Open Society Foundations provides support to Just Security.)

Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the University of Missouri School of Law and Judge C.A. Leedy Professor of Law, said Goldfarb’s suit is the kind that, whether he expects to win or not, at least makes a public statement that he is being subjected to a campaign of lies. Such claims tend to be long and drawn out, requiring more than a little fortitude on the part of the plaintiff. And collecting on any favorable judgment is likely to be difficult because, though both television channels appear to have some U.S. assets, they are based in Russia.

“A suit like this is often about making the public pronouncement, because it is so hard to take it to the point where you a) win, and then b) collect,” Lidsky said in an interview with Just Security. Still, it can serve as a “symbolic shot across the bow” to dissuade the channels from repeating the falsehoods, and for informing the broader public about a campaign of propaganda.

‘A Bold Strike’

“This lawsuit is a bold strike, in a way, against Putin and his government,” Lidsky said. “Even though it seems like it’s about one individual and his problem, this suit seems to have a wider goal or purpose in striking back against the Russian propaganda campaign.”

Litvinenko’s widow, Marina Litvinenko, who lives in Britain, is backing Goldfarb in the suit. For almost 10 years, she said, “we tried to get justice for my husband.” She thought that had been accomplished in 2016 with the report of the U.K. inquiry.

“We brought all information to the public … It was absolutely clear who killed my husband,” she said, sitting alongside Goldfarb and his attorney, Bertrand “Randy” Sellier of the Manhattan-based firm Rottenberg Lipman Rich, at the Atlantic Council event.  “And now they try to use the case of Alexander Litvinenko to destroy the future case of Yulia and Sergei Skripal.”

The complaint focuses on four programs broadcast by Russian Channel One in March and April and a separate broadcast by RT America around the same time. And it makes clear the breadth of their potential audience reach and influence.

“Defendants published the statements at issue with actual knowledge that they were false; at a minimum, they acted with reckless disregard of the falsity of those statements,” according to the suit. “The false statements published by Defendants accusing Dr. Goldfarb of murder constitute libel on its face, and have caused him significant actual damages.”

In addition to the intent of holding the channels accountable for the damage the false allegations have done to his reputation, the suit says Goldfarb is bringing the action “to deter the dissemination of false narratives fabricated by master propagandists deceitfully posing as journalists.”

The defendants haven’t responded formally. When the suit was filed in September, RT told The Guardian that it was reviewing a letter from Goldfarb’s representative, and Channel One didn’t respond to comment.

Channel One is legally an independent company, but the Russian government owns 51 percent, with much of the remainder owned by Roman Abramovich and Yuri Kovalchuk, both close friends of Putin. It receives revenue from advertising, including from U.S. and other Western conglomerates doing business in Russia. RT is financed by the Kremlin and was cited in a January 2017 U.S. intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. An annex in the report dating to December 2012 describes RT as a key element of a “Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest.” The 2017 report contributed to the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision last year to require RT and a sister channel to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as “proxies” for the Russian government.

The Reach of Russian Television

Channel One is widely available on American cable and satellite television services, and Goldfarb’s suit cites its boast on its website that it is ““the most widely distributed Russian-language channel … reaching over 250 million TV viewers around the world.” And RT America says it has “a total weekly audience of 100 million viewers in 47 of the 100+ countries where RT broadcasts.”

Channel One “transacts significant business within the State of New York,” according to the suit. “Its Russian-language programs are streamed to tens of thousands of paid cable, satellite and IPTV subscribers in New York through major distributors, including Spectrum, DirecTV, Optimum and Xfinity.” The channel also maintains an office in New York. “RT distributes English language programming to tens of thousands of paid subscribers in New York through Spectrum,” and also maintains a bureau and a correspondent in New York, the suit states.

“This is something that is happening in the United States on cable television programs that are available to hundreds of thousands of people here,” Sellier said at the Atlantic Council. “I think we can see in this case some real echoes of what is going on with Russian propaganda – the attempts to disrupt democracy not only in our country but all over the world.”

Litvinenko as Putin Nemesis

Litvinenko was a former officer of the Federal Security Service, known by its Russian acronym FSB and the successor agency to the Soviet Union’s KGB. After joining other FSB officers in 1998 in publicly revealing what they said was corruption and criminal behavior at the top of the agency, he was arrested and jailed for about a year before being released. He and his wife and their six-year-old son fled to the U.K. in 2000, with Goldfarb’s help. The U.K. granted them asylum in 2001. Litvinenko also had been an associate of Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch-turned anti-Putin activist who also gained asylum in Britain in 2003.

Litvinenko soon wrote two books accusing the FSB of corruption and of staging a series of apartment bombings in Russia that killed 300 people. Putin had blamed the bombings on Chechen separatists and soon after invaded Chechnya. Litvinenko claimed the FSB had staged the bombings to strengthen Putin’s position to win the March 2000 presidential election.

“In 2003, Litvinenko began working as a consultant for British security and business intelligence companies,” according to the suit. He became a consultant to MI-6, the British Secret Service, and was assigned to help Spanish law enforcement investigate the Russian mafia in Spain.

“During this work, Litvinenko uncovered connections between Russian gangsters and members of Putin’s inner circle,” the suit states. “Upon information and belief, Litvinenko’s discoveries were the immediate motive for his murder by Russian operatives.”

Death by Polonium Poisoning

In November 2006, Litvinenko fell ill and was hospitalized after drinking tea in a hotel bar with the two former KGB agents-turned-businessmen, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitri Kovtun. He died later that month. The inquiry, led by retired judge Sir Robert Owen, concluded “to a criminal standard,” meaning beyond a reasonable doubt, that Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun poisoned Litvinenko. Owen rejected alternative explanations floated by the suspects or others.

Owen went further. “Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by FSB Director Mr. [Nikolai] Patrushev and also by President Putin,” Owen wrote.

But by the time the report was released, Lugovoy had received a commendation from Putin and had become a member of the Russian Parliament. The British government has long sought the extradition and arrest of both suspects.

Yet early this year, Channel One and RT America both revived alternative narratives for Litvinenko’s death. Goldfarb’s complaint outlines the litany of allegations that Russian outlets had trotted out over the years. When the Skripal poisoning occurred in March 2018, it started again.

The defendants “broadcast these falsehoods knowing full well that they had been debunked in the UK Inquiry,” Goldfarb’s suit argues. “The fact that these lies have been revived, repackaged and broadcast years later as part of a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign evidences the Defendants’ malice.”

Marina Litvinenko said she felt taking the case to court was the “right thing to do because we don’t have [any] other power to prevent Russian propaganda.”

IMAGE: Marina Litvinenko speaks to reporters outside The High Court in London after receiving the results of the inquiry into the death of her husband Alexander Litvinenko, on January 21, 2016. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Viola Gienger

Washington Editor for Just Security and research scholar at NYU School of Law. You can follow her on Twitter (@violagienger).