Three owners of a Russian bank filed a defamation lawsuit Friday against BuzzFeed News for publishing a dossier with unproven allegations about them that include attempts at bribery and conspiring to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan, who together own about three quarters of Alfa Bank, are seeking unspecified damages from the news outlet and the reporters who wrote the January report about the dossier — editor-in-chief Ben Smith, reporter Ken Bensinger and editors Miriam Elder and Mark Schoofs.
Smith acknowledged around the time the report was published that some aspects of the dossier were incorrect or still unproven. The court complaint, according to a version posted by Politico, says this admission shows the news outlet was both aware and still willing to publish a questionable report — thus, meeting the legal standards for libel.
“Even though the Dossier included many harmful allegations about Plaintiffs and Alfa, and even though Buzzfeed expressly acknowledged the unverified and potentially unverifiable nature of the Dossier’s allegations, Buzzfeed published the unredacted Dossier and the Article anyway — without first affording the Plaintiffs an opportunity to address the unverified allegations made against them and against Alfa in the Dossier,” wrote Alan Lewis and John Walsh, lawyers from the law firm Carter Ledyard and Milburn, who are representing the bank owners.
“The false and defamatory statements published by Defendants of and concerning the Plaintiffs and Alfa, and the implications of those defamatory statements, were made with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of whether they were true or false,” they continued.
The dossier claims Fridman, Aven, and Khan attempted to bribe Russian President Vladimir Putin while he served as the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and that they participated in a scheme with the Russian government that aimed to influence the presidential election.
BuzzFeed defended publishing the dossier later Friday, arguing it was relevant to the ongoing federal and congressional Russia probes and calling the lawsuit a “shameless attempt to bully and intimidate” their news company.
“The head of a Russian bank sued our news organization for publishing a document that alleges financial ties between Putin, Trump, and Russian entities—including this very bank,” BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal wrote in a statement.
“Given that the allegations contained in the dossier were presented to successive presidents and remain under active investigation by intelligence agencies and Congress, there is little doubt that their publication was and continues to be in the public interest. That makes it all the more important that this shameless attempt to bully and intimidate BuzzFeed News not have a chilling effect on other journalists who continue to report this important story.”
A Russian internet businessman Aleksej Gubarev sued BuzzFeed in February for publishing the dossiers claims that his businesses utilized “botnets and porn traffic” target Democratic Party leaders through cyber operations.
BuzzFeed apologized and pulled the parts about Gubarev and his firms from the dossier document posted on its site around the time the suit was filed — but it is still ongoing.
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