Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), the nation’s oldest investigative journalism organization, announced today the largest-ever settlement of a fees dispute under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. Planet Aid paid $1.925 million and released all its claims against CIR and two of its reporters, according to a filing made in federal court in San Francisco. The settlement officially ends the six-year libel suit. 

“Today, nonprofit newsrooms are increasingly filling in the gap of an already decimated news landscape.  These frivolous lawsuits increasingly brought against nonprofit newsrooms throughout the country – could be a serious blow for democracy,” said D. Victoria Baranetsky, General Counsel at CIR. “While fighting the Planet Aid case cost millions of dollars in legal fees and thousands of hours of staff time, persevering through it was a necessary insurance for the future of journalism.”

CIR’s 18-month investigation looked into questions about U.S. government funds given to Planet Aid for aid in southern Africa, including Malawi, as well as the organization’s ties to an alleged cult.  Our reporting, alongside a British Broadcasting Corp. radio program based on our reporting, led the British government to cut off funding to Planet Aid’s Malawi subcontractor and launched a probe into suspected foreign aid fraud.  Planet Aid sued in 2016, challenging CIR’s reporting as libelous and engaging in years of expensive discovery, including over a dozen formal discovery disputes.

As CIR’s libel insurance was nearly exhausted, a joint team from Covington & Burling and Davis Wright Tremaine defended CIR, pro bono, for four years.  Planet Aid’s complaint was dismissed in 2021 under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, a law designed to discourage lawsuits intended to silence speech on matters of public concern.  The district court found Planet Aid was a public figure and had failed to establish the actual malice necessary for a defamation claim.  In August 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.  

“Covington & Burling is proud to have stepped into this sprawling libel litigation to defend CIR when Planet Aid was pressing to learn the names of CIR’s confidential sources and to gain unbridled access to what amounted to nearly a half a million documents that CIR’s reporters had assembled examining Planet Aid’s activities across the globe,” said Simon J. Frankel, of Covington & Burling in San Francisco.  

Thomas R. Burke, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine who vetted CIR’s investigation in 2016 and defended the reporting for the past six years, remarked, “This attorney’s fees award would not have been possible without the protection provided by California’s anti-SLAPP statute. It is the first line of defense against lawsuits that target constitutionally protected petitioning and free speech activities. Everyone who cares about journalism should do all that they can to see that these laws are available in every state and to support the passage of a federal anti-SLAPP law.” .

Robert J. Rosenthal, CEO of CIR, added, “Without the generous pro bono legal representation from Davis Wright Tremaine and Covington & Burling, The Center for Investigative Reporting might have been destroyed.”

The $1.925 million settlement will be apportioned to CIR’s insurance company, which paid a portion of CIR’s legal fees at the outset of litigation, while the bulk of the remainder will be used by Covington & Burling and Davis Wright Tremaine to support ongoing pro bono matters.

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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 worked at The New York Times, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Wikimedia Foundation. She also clerked on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Baranetsky holds degrees from Columbia Journalism School, Harvard Law School, and Oxford University. Currently, she teaches at Berkeley Law School as an adjunct professor and is a fellow at Columbia's Tow Center. She is barred in California, New York and New Jersey.

Simon J. Frankel is a partner in the San Francisco office of Covington & Burling LLP, where he is a chair of the Intellectual Property Rights Practice Group and a member of the firm’s Management Committee. His civil litigation practice focuses on copyright and trademark litigation and internet disputes, including online privacy litigation. He taught Art Law at Berkeley Law School several times in 1995-2000 and is now teaching Privacy Litigation. Mr. Frankel is a graduate of Harvard College, the University of Cambridge (M.Phil.), and Yale Law School.

Thomas R. Burke is outside counsel to The Center for Investigative Reporting. He is a partner and co-chair of the media law practice at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in San Francisco. Burke also is a continuing lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he has taught since 2002. He has over 26 years of trial and appellate court experience defending journalists (across all mediums) and pursuing litigation to obtain access to public records and courtrooms. Burke is the author of "Anti-SLAPP Litigation" (The Rutter Group 2013-present) and a contributing editor to "Weil & Brown, Cal. Practice Guide: Civil Procedure Before Trial" (The Rutter Group 2014-present) (Anti-SLAPP Motions).