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.