An important new report sheds light on a common challenge faced by journalists around the world: fear of British libel laws. The UK’s laws are far more friendly to litigants than those in the United States (and most other developed countries), and global figures and businesses–recently, in Iceland, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Ukraine–have increasingly sought to have their libel cases heard there, according to the report published last week by the Center for International Media Assistance. The report’s author, Drew Sullivan, a founder of the Sarajevo-based Bosnia-Herzegovina Center for Investigative Reporting identifies a disturbing trend: Publications around the world, including those in the United States, must increasingly vet their stories according to British libel laws due to the potential for global distribution made possible on the internet.
Many thanks to Drew, who’s work with the Balkan CIR we’ve highlighted in the past. He’s pulled together the growing body of evidence that British libel laws–as well as those of Ireland, France and Australia–have created a form of “libel tourism”, in which litigants search for venues most likely to gain a positive verdict, often irregardless of the truth of allegations in a story. One hopeful sign he’s also identified: The state of New York recently passed a law (“Rachel’s Law,” prompted by the case of U.S. author Rachel Ehrenfeld, who refused to accept a UK judgment against her favoring a Saudi financier she’d investigated) which blocks state courts from enforcing civil damages from a UK libel suit if the judgment falls short of ensuring authors the same free speech rights they have in the United States. A similar bill passed the US House of Representatives last year, and is now making its way through the Senate–which would establish an important principle protecting US journalists (at least) from the far reach of British libel laws.
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Mark Schapiro specializes in international and environmental stories. His award-winning work appears in all media: in publications such as Harpers, The Atlantic, Mother Jones and Yale 360; on television, including PBS FRONTLINE/World and KQED; on public radio including Marketplace; and on the web. He is currently writing a book for Wiley & Co. investigating the backstory to our carbon footprints. His previous book, "EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power," reveals the health and economic implications of the tightening of environmental standards by the European Union.