UK libel law discourages free speech: UN rights committee

[JURIST] The United Nations Committee on Human Rights [official website] has criticized British libel laws for stifling freedom of speech, according to Thursday media reports. In a report [text linked under "Concluding Observations"] issued after its 93rd session in Geneva, the Committee said restrictive laws may encourage media agencies and scholars to abandon reporting on serious public issues, especially in cases involving the Internet. The report also expressed concern that the laws encourage the phenomenon know as "libel tourism," where petitioners use the London High Court [official website] to sue foreign publishers under laws that are seen as friendly to the claimant. The Committee said:

The State party should re-examine its technical doctrines of libel law, and consider the utility of a so-called "public figure" exception, requiring proof by the plaintiff of actual malice in order to go forward on actions concerning reporting on public officials and prominent public figures, as well as limiting the requirement that defendants reimburse a plaintiff's lawyers fees and costs regardless of scale, including Conditional Fee Agreements and so-called "success fees," especially insofar as these may have forced defendant publications to settle without airing valid defences. The ability to resolve cases through enhanced pleading requirements (e.g., requiring a plaintiff to make some preliminary showing of falsity and absence of ordinary journalistic standards) might also be considered.
The Committee also expressed concern that the Official Secrets Act 1989 [text] has been used to prevent former government officials from bringing issues of public interest to light. The Telegraph has more. The Guardian has additional coverage.

Experts first raised concerns after Khalid bin Mahfouz [Forbes profile], a Saudi businessman, used UK courts [Washington Post report] to sue Dr. Rachel Ehrenfield, the director of The American Center for Democracy [advocacy website], for defamation. Ehrenfield had accused Mahfouz of funding terrorism in her book "Funding Evil." Mahfouz won a judgment in 2005 for more than $225,000 after the court granted jurisdiction based upon 23 copies of the book being sold in the UK along with one chapter of the book that was available over the Internet. In July, a judge for the High Court ordered [JURIST report] a British man to pay approximately $44,000 in damages for creating a fake profile on social networking website Facebook [corporate website] and posting defaming information about an acquaintance, Mathew Firsht. Also in 2005, film director Roman Polanski was allowed [JURIST report] to pursue a libel suit via video tape against Vanity Fair [media website] despite his status as a fugitive at the time.

 

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