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

Law Editor,Robert Verkaik
Thursday 14 August 2008 00:00 BST

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.

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