What do you do if you want to shut somebody up but your country has lax libel legislation? Travel to another country with harsher laws, apparently. For World Press Freedom Day this year, ARTICLE 19 and Freedom House convened a panel of experts in London to expose one of the growing threats to free speech: "libel tourism" - the practice of shopping around for laws and courts that overwhelmingly favour the plaintiff.
In the U.K., "the Libel Capital of the World", the burden of proof lies with the defendant in libel cases, which makes the country an attractive venue for plaintiffs wanting to silence their critics. Plus, those who are successful can say they were validated by the U.K.'s reputable court system, which carries considerable weight in public relations.
Such was the experience of Sheik Khalid bin Mahfouz, a wealthy Saudi businessman accused of financing terrorist groups in "Funding Evil", a book by U.S. scholar Rachel Ehrenfeld. He took his case to the U.K. - where only a handful of copies of Ehrenfeld's book had been sold - and won. In 2005, the author was made to apologise, destroy copies of her book and pay bin Mahfouz tens of thousands of dollars in damages. It turns out that bin Mahfouz has sued using U.K. libel laws more than two dozen times - and that if he had sued Ehrenfield on her own turf, she would have been protected by the First Amendment.
Then there's the story of Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia's billionaires. In 1996, he successfully sued Forbes magazine in London for an article entitled "Godfather of the Kremlin" - even though the magazine is based in New York and sold only a modest number of copies in the U.K.
"It's a disgrace that a country such as the U.K., which represents itself as a pioneer of democracy, should be the first port of call for the rich and powerful looking to not only silence but seek retaliation for criticisms made against them," says ARTICLE 19.
Good luck trying to find some controversial titles in Britain. To avoid potential suits in British courts, authors are choosing not to sell contentious books in the U.K. at all. British lawyer Mark Stephens says, "Books are already being cancelled by publishers because the economics of publishing are such that they cannot sustain the costs of a libel action." Cambridge University Press recently pulped a book called "Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World" by a U.S. university professor and a former U.S. State Department employee on the simple threat of a suit by - surprise - bin Mahfouz.
Libel tourism is not restricted to the U.K., either, say ARTICLE 19 and Freedom House. Common law-based systems in Asia, for example, open the door for influential moneyed interests to gain an enormous legal advantage, at great cost to free speech. Terrorist financing and corruption-related topics have often been the objects of the suits.
Luckily, some jurisdictions have cottoned on to the phenomenon. Inspired by Ehrenfeld's case, New York State adopted the Libel Tourism Terrorism Act last month. The act stipulates that foreign libel judgements are unenforceable in New York unless a foreign defamation law offers the same free speech protection guaranteed in the New York and U.S. constitutions.