Serbian Oligarch Loses Defamation Lawsuit

     (CN) — The D.C. Circuit dismissed a Serbian businessman’s claim that the International Crisis Group tried to extort him, then defamed him in a post-Bosnian conflict report.
     The International Crisis Group (ICG) named Milan Jankovic aka Philip Zepter and his company, Zepter Group, in its 2003 report on stalled Serbian reform. The group says it works “to prevent and resolve deadly conflict” by distributing reports and briefing papers to officials in foreign ministries and international organizations.
     The 2003 report blamed the deceleration of Serbian reform on “Milosevic-era financial structures” that had “transformed themselves into a new Serbian oligarchy that finances many of the leading political parties and has tremendous influence over government decisions.”
     Many of these companies “profited from special informal monopolies” and “privileged exchange rates” for their support of the Milosevic regime, the report stated.
     Zepter and his company appeared on a list of individuals and companies who were purportedly “well known to average Serbs.”
     The district court initially dismissed Zepter’s defamation claim, but the D.C. Circuit reversed in 2007 on the grounds that some passages could be interpreted as defamatory.
     ICG successfully moved to dismiss, claiming the statements were opinion and fair comment, and were protected by the fair report privilege.
     Zepter appealed, and the D.C. Circuit again reversed, this time reinstating his defamation and false light claims.
     On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit upheld the complaint’s dismissal on a third review, on the grounds that Zepter was a limited-purposed public figure in the post-Milosevic government.
     “Contrary to his suggestion, he was not a mere bystander engaged in civic duties but was an advisor to and financial supporter of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who came into power following Milosevic’s ouster,” Judge Judith Rogers said, writing for a three-judge panel.
     Zepter does not deny that he paid a lobbyist over $100,000 to support the Serbian government’s efforts to improve relations between the U.S. and Serbia, efforts which led to the U.S.’s assistance in writing off two-thirds of Serbia’s foreign debt.
     “The evidence shows that Zepter had voluntarily thrust himself into ensuring that Serbia underwent reforms in the post-Milosevic era,” the 31-page opinion states.
     In addition, Zepter has not proven that ICG was motivated by actual malice when it included his name in its report, Rogers ruled.
     Zepter claims that the report’s author James Lyon, ICG’s project director for Serbia from 2000 to 2005, demanded up to $2 million in order to leave Zepter out of negative stories.
     However, “for the attempted extortion to be clear and convincing evidence from which a reasonable jury could find actual malice, Zepter must proffer evidence not only that Lyon prepared Report 145 with an extortion motive in mind, but also that the extortion motive caused ICG or Lyon to risk publishing an untrue statement about him. Zepter’s evidence fails to establish the latter, at least by clear and convincing evidence,” Rogers wrote. “All Zepter has shown is that Lyon hoped to capitalize on working on reports about the Balkans. That evidence, without more, does not amount to evidence that Lyon was willing to publish untruths in order to make an extra buck.”
     Zepter is worth an estimated $5 billion, according to the Cato Institute.

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