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Freedom of expression versus Russia sanctions? Administrative Court rejects Graham Phillips’ Sanctions Act challenge


The Administrative Court has given judgment in the first case in England & Wales to consider the relationship between financial sanctions and freedom of expression. Graham Phillips was sanctioned by the UK in July 2022 for producing and publishing propaganda in favour of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the form of video content from the Donbas region of Ukraine.  Mr Phillips applied for a court review of the decision to maintain his listing in January 2023 on the grounds that the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 does not give the Government power to make regulations authorising the imposition of financial sanctions on a person because of their political views, and that his designation was a disproportionate restriction on his right to freedom of expression, property and family life.

The Administrative Court (Mr Justice Johnson) has today rejected Mr Phillips’ application, finding that:

-        Mr Phillips was not sanctioned for his political views, but because his video content is propaganda in favour of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The judge found that Mr Phillips’ conduct is not consistent with responsible journalism, that he is for all practical purposes a Russian asset embedded with and adopted by the Russian military, and the material he produces is entirely one-sided, supporting Russia and denigrating Ukraine. 

-        There is power in the Act and regulations made under it to impose financial sanctions on someone in his position for acts of ‘expression’: the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 permit sanctions to be applied to someone who supports of promotes policies or actions which destabilise Ukraine or undermine its territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence and were validly made.

-        The financial sanctions imposed on Mr Phillips are a proportionate restriction on his ECHR rights.

The judgment of the Court ([2024] EWHC 32 (Admin)) is here.

Maya Lester KC, Malcolm Birdling, Richard Howell & Ali Al-Karim acted for the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Affairs, instructed by the Government Legal Department.