Libel cases flourish overseas

Ashley Milne-Tyte Jul 17, 2008

Libel cases flourish overseas

Ashley Milne-Tyte Jul 17, 2008


Bob Moon: It’s usually pretty hard to win a libel case in U.S. courts, what with the First Amendment and all, but that’s not always the case in the rest of the world.

When the rich and powerful want to sue for libel, they often shop around for a country and a legal system most sympathetic to their case. There’s even a name for it: libel tourism.

Ashley Milne-Tyte has more.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: In the olden days, a man’s reputation was everything and if someone said or wrote something that sullied his good name, there was one way to sort it out…

Man: Gentlemen, are you ready? Fire! (Gunshot)

Eventually dueling was replaced by a less deadly method of comeuppance: libel law. But thanks to the Internet, writing can still be a dangerous profession.

John Watson teaches communication law and journalism ethics at American University.

John Watson: Now, with the globalization of communication, if someone impugns your reputation in New York, it’s essentially done simultaneously throughout the globe.

That means aggrieved plaintiffs can sue pretty much anywhere. Often, they choose Britain, where laws tend to favor the allegedly libeled.

New York-based author Rachel Ehrenfeld is an expert on terrorism financing. In 2002, she wrote a book called “Funding Evil.” In it, she implied that a Saudi businessman, Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, was funneling money to terrorist groups. Bin Mahfouz sued her for libel in London. A defiant Ehrenfeld refused to show up. Bin Mahfouz won by default.

Rachel Ehrenfeld: I was fined $225,000, I was ordered to destroy the books, to publish apologies in all the major newspapers…

Ehrenfeld tried to countersue in the U.S. Ultimately, the American court wouldn’t take the case.

Other authors and publications faced with the possibility of losing a libel case have issued apologies and pulped entire print runs. American University’s John Watson says this backing down to save money makes a mockery of journalism ethics and threatens the truth.

Watson: The entire purpose of the First Amendment is being subverted to commercial processes and commercial processes that are supported by law and that’s very frightening to me.

This spring, New York took some notice. The state passed the Libel Terrorism Protection Act. The law protects any New York writer from having their assets seized if they lose a libel case abroad.

In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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