Britain's libel laws are stifling free speech, says UN

British libel laws are stifling free speech around the world as wealthy businessmen and celebrities increasingly turn to UK courts to silence their critics abroad, the United Nations has warned.

In a report published yesterday, the UN's Committee on Human Rights criticises the phenomenon of "libel tourism", where foreign businessmen and millionaires use the High Court in London to sue foreign publishers under claimant-friendly defamation laws.

It said that UK defamation law had discouraged critical media reporting on serious public interest matters, affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work.

The report cites the case of Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, an American researcher who was sued in London by a Saudi businessman and his two sons over a book which was not published in the UK, although 23 copies were sold into the jurisdiction via the internet and one chapter was available online.

The claim led to the State of New York passing legislation to protect writers and publishers working there from the enforcement of defamation judgments made by other courts, unless those courts accorded the same freedom of speech protection as New York and US federal law.

The US federal legislature is considering enacting similar legislation.

The committee also criticised the way the British Official Secrets Act 1989 had been used to stop former Crown employees from bringing issues of public interest into the public domain and said that provisions in the Terrorism Act 2006 regarding encouragement of terrorism were vague and could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

The criticisms are contained in comments on a report submitted by the UK after the committee's 93rd session in Geneva in July. UN members states have to submit reports on human rights in their jurisdictions every three years.

The committee said it was concerned that the Official Secrets Act had been used "to frustrate former employees of the Crown from bringing into the public domain issues of genuine public interest, and can be exercised to prevent the media from publishing such matters". It noted that disclosures of information were penalised even when they did not harm national security.

"The State party should ensure that its powers to protect information genuinely related to matters of national security are narrowly utilised and limited to instances where the release of such information would be harmful to national security," the report says.

The committee was concerned about the "broad and vague" definition of the offence of "encouragement of terrorism" in section 1 of the Terrorism Act.

"In particular, a person can commit the offence even when he or she did not intend members of the public to be directly or indir-ectly encouraged by his or her statement to commit acts of terrorism, but where his or her statement was understood by some members of the public as encouragement to commit such acts," the report says.

The committee called on the Government to consider amending the part of section 1 which deals with encouragement of terrorism so that "its application does not lead to a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression".

It said the Government should re-examine the technical doctrines of libel law and should consider introducing "a so-called 'public figure' exception".

This would require a would-be claimant in a libel case to prove actual malice by a publisher or author before he or she could proceed with an action.

It would apply in cases "concerning reporting on public officials and prominent public figures".

Foreign nationals who have successfully sued for libel in Britain

Boris Berezovsky

Britain declared itself open to libel-forum shoppers in 2000 when Boris Berezovsky was given permission by the House of Lords to sue Forbes after the US magazine wrongly branded him a thug and crook. While there were only 13 Forbes subscribers in Russia, the Lords found that the publication was available on the internet and he had sufficient business interests in Britain to have been damaged here.

Cameron Diaz

The actress used UK libel laws to sue The National Enquirer after it wrongly alleged she was unfaithful. It apologised and paid "substantial" libel damages.

Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski appeared by videolink at the Royal Courts of Justice to win £1.5m in libel damages from US magazine Vanity Fair, after it falsely claimed he had seduced a model days after his wife's murder.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths teachers needed for supply work in Ipswich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teachers requir...

Executive Assistant/Events Coordinator - Old Street, London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Executive Assistant/Event...

Female PE Teacher

£23760 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The JobAre you a trai...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering