Friday, January 15, 2010

English libel law is still a scandal

Forgive us for banging on about this, but it's something we are very angry about.

We are delighted to reproduce a letter by Global Witness in The Economist, which reads as follows:

SIR – You included scientists, journalists and writers on your list of people unhappy with England’s claimant-friendly libel laws, but you did not mention non-governmental organisations, which are also constrained by the current system (“Taking away the welcome mat”, January 2nd). Campaigning groups like Global Witness specialise in exposing serious issues of great public interest, ranging from human-rights abuses to arms-trafficking and state looting. Our targets are often enormously rich, corrupt individuals who can afford to use the law to crush freedom of speech, even if they are completely in the wrong.

Our activity does not please certain people. In July 2007, Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, the son of the president of Congo, sought an injunction to force us to remove certain documents from our website, which suggested that he had been using state oil revenues to fund his personal lifestyle. Although we won the case against an injunction, actions like this, and the potentially more expensive libel claims, act as a deterrent to the sort of work we do.

As they stand, England’s libel laws work against groups such as ours and in favour of some of the world’s most egregious individuals who are using the English justice system to launder their reputations and defend their continuing corrupt activity.

It is heartening news that the justice secretary is appointing an expert panel to look at libel laws. But if this panel is to do its job properly, it is imperative that it has wide representation, not just from the legal and media worlds, but from NGOs publishing on matters of public interest that face different challenges and operate in a different context from journalists and lawyers.

Charmian Gooch
Patrick Alley
Founding directors
Global Witness

The letter follows an article on libel in The Economist, which notes:

"Index on Censorship, a pressure group, has suggested a £10,000 cap on damages to reduce the advantages enjoyed by the rich."

We would firmly support that.

British libel law is evolving -- hopefully -- in the direction of strengthening the position of journalists and NGOs engaged in researching and publishing matters of public interest. At present, judges are - probably rightly - in a position to determine whether a defendant in a libel case is subject to qualified privilege -- journalists have access to this protection, but it is unclear whether this protection applies to NGOs. NGOs engaged in investigative work, often working closely with journalists, should enjoy qualified privilege status: subject, of course, to our applying the appropriate standards of professional responsibility to our work.


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