Reveal travels to Malawi to learn more about an alleged cult leader who’s playing a shell game with U.S. foreign aid. Credit: Matt Smith/Reveal

After more than four years of fighting a multimillion-dollar libel lawsuit brought by international aid group Planet Aid, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting was handed a decisive victory last week by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In a lengthy order, a federal judge dismissed the entire case with prejudice.

Reveal’s 2016 investigation into Planet Aid, which received U.S. government funds for aid programs in impoverished areas of southern Africa, tied the charity to an alleged cult and raised significant questions about whether the funds from the U.S. and other governments actually were reaching the people they were intended to help. 

Several months after the initial stories were published, Planet Aid filed a vexatious libel lawsuit against Reveal in federal court. The case hinged on three key questions: Did our reporting result in falsity? Did our journalists act with malice in reporting the story? Are Planet Aid and Lisbeth Thomsen, director of its program in Malawi, public figures? After multiple fights over jurisdiction and more than two years of discovery, the court ultimately found in our favor and dismissed the case. 

Beyond creating positive legal precedent, this case serves as a poignant example of a troublesome legal trend taking place in the news media industry over the past decade: deep-pocketed interests seeking to silence journalists with meritless, expensive defamation suits. The New York Times, Mother Jones, BuzzFeed News and other major news outlets have faced similar lawsuits in recent years. The 2016 claim brought against Gawker by Hulk Hogan, and funded by billionaire Peter Thiel, ultimately led to that outlet’s demise. 

The potential impact of these lawsuits on nonprofit investigative newsrooms like our own (and Mother Jones) and on smaller outlets throughout the country – where local journalism already has been decimated – could be a serious blow for democracy. Fighting the Planet Aid case cost millions of dollars in legal fees and thousands of hours of staff time spent on the nearly constant legal back-and-forth over more than four years. 

Without the generous pro bono representation from attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine and Covington & Burling, Reveal would not have survived to defend itself. The legal costs vastly exceeded our insurance coverage and, had Planet Aid won, it claimed it was due over $25 million in damages, which is double our annual budget. Perhaps most important, it is impossible to quantify the toll on the journalists at the center of this case. Reveal will never get back the time spent fighting this suit, which should have been directed toward more courageous reporting on stories that would otherwise go unseen – at a time when our country needs robust, fact-based information more than ever before. 

The ruling does allow Planet Aid the right to appeal to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, today we are taking a victory lap, both for Reveal, as we get back to putting all our resources toward reporting, and for the First Amendment, as this decision should serve as a warning to powerful interests considering embarking on this expensive and failed strategy for hobbling press freedom.

You can read more about our reporting on Planet Aid, the lawsuit and what it means for press freedom in our 2019 article, “Reveal has been fighting a lawsuit for three years. Now we’re speaking up about it.” and in “What a costly lawsuit against investigative reporting looks like,” in the Columbia Journalism Review.

D. Victoria Baranetsky can be reached at vbaranetsky@revealnews.org, and Christa Scharfenberg can be reached at cscharfenberg@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @vdbaranetsky and @ChristaCIR.

D. Victoria Baranetsky

Victoria Baranetsky is general counsel at The Center for Investigative Reporting, where she counsels reporters on newsgathering, libel, privacy, subpoenas, and other newsroom matters.  Prior to CIR, Victoria served as a First Amendment Fellow at The New York Times, a fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and a legal counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation. After graduating from Harvard Law School Baranetsky received a master’s degree in philosophy from Oxford University and clerked on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, a graduate degree from Columbia Journalism School, and currently, is a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. She is barred in California, New York and New Jersey. She also teaches media law at Berkeley Law School as an adjunct professor.

Christa Scharfenberg

Christa Scharfenberg is CEO of The Center for Investigative Reporting. She joined CIR in 2003 as communications manager and has been a leader in its growth from a small nonprofit news organization, producing a handful of stories a year, to a multiplatform newsroom that reaches millions of people monthly through public radio, podcasts, documentaries, social media and the web. She managed the launch and growth of Reveal, CIR's Peabody Award and duPont-Columbia University Award-winning national public radio show and podcast, produced with PRX. She has been an executive or senior producer of documentaries for CIR, including the Academy Award-nominated film “Heroin(e),” numerous FRONTLINE co-productions and the independent film “Banished,” which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Scharfenberg is a member of the Poynter Institute's National Advisory Board and was a 2014 Punch Sulzberger Program fellow at Columbia University Journalism School. Prior to joining CIR, she was associate director of the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco. She is based in CIR’s Emeryville, California, office.