Wednesday, February 17, 2010

London: libel capital of the world

Libel laws in England are so strict human rights organisations have condemned them for interfering with freedom of speech.

Icelandic political science professor Hannes Gissurarson was very surprised when a British diplomat rang his doorbell in Reykjavik in 2004. The diplomat carried a court order demanding he appear in front of a British judge to answer to charges of libel. In 1999, the professor had made some pointed remarks to students regarding the Icelandic businessmen, Jon Olafsson, that had now caught up with him

Part of Gissurarson’s critical lecture had ended up on the internet in English. Olafsson, who was staying in the United Kingdom, thought his reputation had suffered as a result and demanded compensation. The dispute escalated into a five-year legal battle.

Gissurarson was forced to sell his house to pay his legal bills (some 172,000 euros or 150,000 pounds), but in the end he did win the trial. The British ministry of foreign affairs ended up paying for the trial due to a legal technicality it had overseen.

London is the libel capital of the world. Russian oligarchs looking to silence their detractors and American multinationals keen to gag critical scientists find their legal interests best served in the British capital.

Last year, the Index on Censorship, a British NGO advocating worldwide freedom of speech, an NGO called Sense about Science and the British writers association PEN embarked on a campaign to reform British libel laws.

Time for action

The British government seems to have begun to realise something has to be done. American dailies are considering pulling the UK distribution of their newspapers, fearing libel cases. In the US, unlike England, proving libel requires demonstration of malicious intent. Some US states have already passed laws to protect their citizens from English libel legislation.

Jack Straw, the British minister of justice, has established a committee to study libel law reform. Index on Censorship and PEN have suggested capping damages at 10,000 pounds and creating a special tribunal that would be able to deliver justice more swiftly and cheaply than the courts.

English law – Scotland has its own legislation – is very strict when it comes to libel. The burden of proof in these cases lies with the defence. High-priced lawyers are always more than willing to make life hard for the defendant. English jurisdiction is by no means limited to its own borders. Even if England is only peripherally involved in a case, a judge can declare it fit for trial.

Rachel Ehrenfeld, an American author who wrote a book about fundraising by Islamic terrorists, was subpoenaed by a Saudi businessman she had accused of being involved in such matters. While Ehrenfeld had only sold 23 books in England via the internet, with some fragments appearing on a website as well, an English court found this merited 100,000 pounds in damages to be paid by the author to the Saudi businessman.

Coming soon to a daily near you

Similar cases abound. Recently, A Greek national sued The New York Times, a political exile from Tunisia brought a case against the German periodical Die Zeit, a Palestinian politician subpoenaed the Arabic TV-network, Al-Jazeera, and an Icelandic bank was awarded substantial damages at the expense of the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet.

The British media complain bitterly about the law. Business interests are increasingly eager to sue over critical reporting. The newspapers’ victories in the legal arena tend to be of the Pyrrhic kind, since legal bills can be just as staggering, and the winner of a case is only required to pay part of them. Newspapers generally think twice before risking another lawsuit.

“The issue is not the strength of your evidence, but rather about your cash flow,” said John Kampfner, chief executive of the Index on Censorship. A 2008 study carried out by Oxford University found English libel cases were 140 times more costly than those held elsewhere in Europe.

Scientists are also a target

Scientists also need to watch their backs. A few years ago, the Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen warned colleagues at a conference in Oxford about a dangerous side effect caused by a drug called Omniscan, commonly administered to improve the quality of medical scans. He claimed one of his patients had succumbed to the drug and others had ended up in wheelchairs.

Thomsen’s warning may cost him dearly. The manufacturer of Omniscan, GE Healthcare, a subsidiary of the US company, General Electric, sued Thomsen for libel. The case is still in court.

A similar thing happened to the British cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, who expressed doubts about the effectiveness of a new cardiological device when speaking at a conference in the US. His criticism also made it onto the internet. The device’s manufacturer, American company NMT Medical, promptly sued him through a London court.

“The number of cases that go before a judge is relatively small,” Kampfner acknowledged. But he also said dozens of scientists, journalists and bloggers remain mum on issues every year. “Many are frightened into the submission,” he said. Fearing an expensive trial, they often accept out-of-court settlements, including self-imposed gag orders.

But politicians who are not enamoured with the press are less than keen to pass reform. “Believe me,” said Denis MacShane, a Labour parliamentarian, “if we passed a milder libel law, papers like The Sun and The Daily Mail would be quick to abuse it.”

Till now, the legal establishment has not fully embraced reforms. Lord Hoffman, a prominent legal scholar, pointed out that the English rules had been approved by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. He also claimed foreigners only brought a limited number of libel cases to British courts, a statement disputed by many of his colleagues. Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer summed up the problem most succinctly. “We do not have free speech in this country, we have expensive speech,” he said. - International - London: libel capital of the world

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