Marina Litvinenko: we are trying to stop the Russian propaganda machine
Free Russia Foundation and the Atlantic Council organized this week an event with Marina Litvinenko – the widow of slain former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko – and family friend Alexander Goldfarb, to discuss their defamation lawsuit against Russian TV channels in the U.S. The panel discussion, held on Tuesday, September 11, also considered Russia’s use of the disinformation to discredit accusations over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal.
The panel included:
Dr. Alex Goldfarb, President, Litvinenko Justice Foundation
Ms. Marina Litvinenko, Co-founder, Litvinenko Justice Foundation
Mr. Bertrand C. Sellier, Member, Rottenberg Lipman Rich, P.C.
Moderated by: Dr. Lauren Van Metre, Senior Fellow, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
Reinvigorated propaganda after Skripal case
Alex Goldfarb filed the lawsuit against two Russian state television channels, RT and Channel 1, with a federal court in New York last Friday. Goldfarb said the broadcasters’ programs have falsely claimed that he himself was behind the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer murdered in London in 2006 after drinking from a poisoned cup of tea. The TV programs (short clips were showed at the event) show Walter Litvinenko, father of Alexander Litvinenko and previously a critic of Vladimir Putin, accusing Goldfarb on the basis of an account told by Goldfarb’s wife. The story goes on to accuse Goldfarb also of killing his wife for “knowing too much,” and of working with American and British security services to discredit Russia. Goldfarb, a US citizen, denies all of the claims.
“This is clearly a case of Russian effort to change public opinion both in Russia and in the West into a basic anti-American mode,” said Goldfarb. He added that the broadcasts should also be seen in the context of Russian government propaganda aiming to distance Russian authorities in the aftermath of the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British town of Salisbury.
Marina Litvinenko, Alexander Litvinenko’s widow, said she decided to support the legal action because she could not stand by idly. “Almost 10 years we tried to get justice for my husband,” said Litvinenko, adding that the propaganda against her husband started after his death. In 2016, a UK government inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko concluded that the Russian state is likely to have been behind the poisoning, with intelligence officers Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun identified as the main suspects. In 2018, however, after the poisoning of Skripals, the Russian propaganda machine accelerated again, said Litvinenko.
“They try to use the case of Alexander Litvinenko to destroy the future case of Julia and Sergei Skripal,” said Litvinenko. In this regard, she said, the case brought to the U.S. court is “not only a personal case of Alexander Goldfarb,” but one against the “Russian propaganda-style machine,” and “we try to stop it.”
Bertrand C. Sellier, Goldfarb’s lawyer, said there are hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking people living in the U.S. and that the Russian-language programs on TV have made Goldfarb “a victim of the most heinous lies imaginable.” He added, “this is a case about an individual American citizen who’s been defamed, but I think we can see in this case some real echoes of what is going on generally with Russian propaganda – the attempts to disrupt democracy not only in our country but all over the world.”
New political environment and a new case
Marina Litvinenko said she had hoped after the findings of the British public inquiry that such a crime would never happen again. “I couldn’t believe it happened again,” said Litvinenko.
Though the Skripal case is very similar, the UK government’s reaction has been different the second time around, as exhibited by outrage and the EU and US expulsion of Russian diplomats. In contrast, in the aftermath of Litvinenko’s poisoning, British government was reluctant to investigate the matter. Marina Litvinenko had to sue the British government to open a public inquiry and a court compelled the government to do so, said Goldfarb.
The British government has already brought charges against two Russian men it believes committed the Skripal attack. “There is, of course, an additional national security argument,” said Goldfarb, as novichok, the poison used in the attack, is a more dangerous substance than the polonium used in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.
Marina Litvinenko said she doesn’t believe the suspects in either poisoning would ever be extradited by the Russian government and that the public inquiry into Skripal’s case could be a step in the right direction as it could help prevent such crimes in the future, as well as provide additional information.
After the Litvinenko inquiry in the UK was published, said Litvinenko, “I realized I have power.” She added that it was very difficult to change public opinion about the Kremlin because a lot of people still believed that Russia is a democratic country. After 2014, however, the situation has changed and people have seen the Kremlin’s actions and how propaganda actually works. “We see how they twist any information,” said Litvinenko. “People became confused on what is truth and what is not, because they believe it is just an alternative opinion and we see how dangerous it is. [But] it is not simply another opinion, it is propaganda,” said Litvinenko.
Bertrand C. Sellier said the accusations against Goldfarb have been rejected by the official findings of the UK public inquiry. The Russian-backed TV channels can claim they were just transmitting Walter Litvinenko’s personal opinion, and Sellier notes that “the Supreme Court said that if someone is a public figure you have not only say that something is false, but in effect to know that it is false. In this case the broadcasters were putting forth and endorsing the statement by Walter. […]The case was just filed a few days ago on Friday, so we haven’t heard yet from the defendants, but my guess is that they are going to defend the case vigorously […] We are prepared to fight it.”
By Valeria Jegisman