Moderator: Stewart Chisholm, senior program manager, Network Media Program, OSF
Michael Sullivan, partner, Levine, Sullivan, Koch
Stuart Karle, former general counsel, Dow Jones
Peter Noorlander, legal director, Media Legal Defence Initiative
Toby Mendel, Law Program director, ARTICLE 19
International differences in media law provide both risks to journalists in the U.S and elsewhere, and opportunities to share best practices, said panelists in this morning's discussion on innovations in providing legal protection to investigative journalists.
Libel cases remain one of the primary ways for circumscribing journalists' expression, panelists said. Stuart Karle, a media defense attorney who has represented Dow Jones and other news organizations against claims of libel, spoke about libel tourism, in which plaintiffs travel to England or other places to find a favorable venue for their claims. The U.K. system puts the burden of proof on media defendants to prove that their reporting is true, making it an attractive place for plaintiffs to lodge cases against journalists.
"It's a pretty vicious system at least from the perspective of the press or from the perspective of reporters," said Karle. There are a few promising efforts in the U.S. to counter the threat of plaintiffs suing American journalists in England, including a statute being considered by the U.S. Congress and existing legislation in New York.
Michael Sullivan, who followed Karle, represented the Center for Public Integrity in an extended struggle to defeat Russian oligarchs who filed a libel lawsuit in Washington, D.C., an example of what he called "libel invasion." After five years of discovery and more than 100,000 pages of documents, the court decided against the oligarchs, finding them to be public figures. The audience later applauded when Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, publicly thanked Sullivan for his representation in what Lewis called a "David and Goliath situation."
Though U.S. law provides leadership in its strong protection of journalists in libel cases, it can learn from international examples in other ways, said Toby Mendel, Law Program director of press freedom advocate Article 19. Other countries see the right to information as a basic human right, not a matter of government efficiency or reform. The U.S. could benefit from seeing access to information as a constitutional right, and viewing protection of sources as a right, as some other countries do.
Peter Noorlader, legal director of the newly created Media Legal Defence Initiative, pointed out legal dangers to journalists in developing countries have long been extinct here. Charges of sedition, criminal libel, or breach of public order are lodged against journalists who often have little means of defending themselves, both because they lack the financial resources and because few lawyers are prepared to defend them.
"Are we making progress overall?" asked David Kaplan, who is organizing an international consortium of investigative journalists. Panelists Mendel and Noorlander said that while a snapshot of cases from year to year might cause concern, progress is being made over the long term.
"I have to believe that there's progress or I couldn't continue in my job," said Mendel.