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Why a UK Blogger’s Sanctions Designation was Upheld

Author: Syedur Rahman  15 January 2024
2 min read

Syed Rahman details a court’s decision that the UK government was right to designate Graham Phillips for his pro-Russian activities.

The High Court has ruled that the UK government acted lawfully when designating British video blogger Graham Phillips for his support for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The Court found that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) July 2022 designation of Phillips struck a “fair balance” between UK foreign policy goals and an individual’s rights to freedom of expression.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Johnson said: “The claimant decided to set his face against an overwhelming international consensus, to align himself with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to travel to the frontline, and to help Russia fight its propaganda war.

“He has not shown any journalistic responsibility or ethics. His actions directly support Russia in its policies or actions that destabilise Ukraine.”

He added that countering Russia’s propaganda efforts is a legitimate aim of the UK’s sanctions regime and described Phillips as “for all practical purposes, a Russian asset who has signed up to that propaganda war”.

Punishment

Phillips had argued that the FCDO’s sanctioning of him - on the grounds that he published material promoting actions and policies that destabilise Ukraine - was an unfair punishment for expressing his personal views.

The designation of Phillips requires financial institutions in the UK to freeze his financial assets. This has led to payments company PayPal closing his accounts and YouTube stopping his advertising revenues earned through posting of video blogs on the channel. The court said that although Phillips owes thousands of pounds, he refuses to apply for licences that would allow him access to his funds as he does not want to “buy into’ the system or lend it any credibility”.

Phillips works for the Russian state-owned broadcaster, Russia Today. Since 2014, he has produced content from Donetsk and Luhansk - areas of Ukraine controlled by proxy Russian administrations. His pro-Kremlin coverage of the conflict has seen him receive a medal from Russia’s Federal Security Service. His coverage has included publishing a video of the execution of an unarmed Ukrainian soldier. Phillips also conducted an interview with a British man held as a prisoner of war by Russia that was used to support a death sentence being imposed on him; although he was later released in a prisoner swap.

Proceedings

Phillips began his legal proceedings in June 2023. He had sought an order quashing his designation, arguing it was unlawful and a breach of his rights under article 10 (freedom of expression) and article 1 (protection of property) of the first protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. But the UK government argued successfully that Phillips had not been designated for engaging in political debate or for his political views, but for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by producing and publishing propaganda to justify that illegal invasion.

Phillips’ conduct has led to speculation that he may be investigated for war crimes. The FCDO welcomed the Court’s judgement “and the clear message it sends about the strength of the UK sanctions regime.’’

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Syedur Rahman is known for his in-depth experience of serious fraud, white-collar crime and serious crime cases, as well as his expertise in worldwide asset tracing and recovery, international arbitration, civil recovery, cryptocurrency and high-stakes commercial disputes.

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