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Wall Street Journal battles for freedom of the press in Britain

A man passes an empty newspaper rack displaying a 'Wall Street Journal' sticker in central London.

The LIBOR interest rate rigging scandal has provoked a row in the U.S. about freedom of the press. The Wall Street Journal claims that it has been muzzled by British prosecutors.

The Serious Fraud Office(SFO), a British government department that investigates and prosecutes cases of serious or complex fraud, is expected to name some of the traders implicated in the LIBOR manipulation scandal next week.  

But The Wall Street Journal jumped the gun. The paper published some of the names on its website and on the Dow Jones newswire.  

The SFO reacted furiously, and won a court order prohibiting the Journal from making the story available to readers in Britain. If the order is breached, the paper’s European banking editor could be fined or even imprisoned.

The U.K.  has much tougher rules than the U.S. about the reporting of criminal investigations, and even some campaigners for press freedom sympathize with the British prosecutor’s approach.

“I can understand why the prosecutors are being very careful about naming who they may or may not charge at this stage,” says Adam Christie of Britain’s Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

Christie points out that some of the people named by the Journal may not be charged and therefore may be unfairly tainted. He says it’s important to strike the right balance between press freedom, the rights of the individual, and fair judicial process.

The Wall Street Journal has removed the story from its website and withheld its publication from the European print edition of the paper. However, the Journal has pledged to continue to fight the British court order, which it describes as “a serious affront to press freedom.” 

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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