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4 Jun, 2008 01:35

Billionaire uses UK to punish newspaper

One of Ukraine’s richest men is taking an online newspaper based in the country to court, in Britain. The move against ‘Obozrevatel" (Observer) is part of what’s been called libel tourism. The trend worries free-speech campaigners.

Rinat Akhmetov uses London’s most fearsome defamation lawyers.

“We will have to ignore this process as it is too expensive for us to go to England. Also as we do not have a legal address in England so we cannot even defend ourselves in the court!” says journalist from Obozrevatel, Tatyana Chornovil.

Tatyana is one of those who wrote an article about the obscure past of the former businessman turned politician in Ukraine.

“Akhmetov claims that our stories have damaged his business reputation in Britain. According to Ukrainian law, a congressman has no right to do business! But that is not something that the British libel law takes into account. And in our absence in Britain the decision is going to be in favour of Mr Akhmetov,” adds Tatyana.

The British libel law is often referred to as a rich man’s law. It can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to take a libel action – something an ordinary man in the street simply cannot afford.

“The English libel laws are extremely unfair and undemocratic and very illiberal and they have really quite chilling effect on free speech actually. They are very much skewed in favour of the claimant doing the suing. And all the person needs to do is to show that the statement was defamatory. Law is supposed to be based on the idea that you are innocent until proven guilty. Under English libel law you are guilty and you must prove that you are innocent – so it’s a complete distortion of actual justice from the beginning,” points out the Editor of British Spiked Online Brendan O’Neill.

But one of the leading defamation lawyers, Andrew Stephenson from Carter-Ruck, described in professional circles as “an astute tactician often wrong-footing those on the other side” has a different take on the things.

“The media often choose to portray themselves as the victim in these circumstances. A TV company or a newspaper is forced to defend itself to prove what it says to be true. The answer is not to broadcast or not to make an allegation unless there is evidence that it is true,” insists Stephenson.

The law says that even if there are few subscribers to a publication in Britain, an English court has the right to hear the case.

One of the most famous cases recently has been that of a New York based American author who has written about the support of some Saudis for Islamist terrorism. She was successfully sued in London by a Saudi for a book she had published in America that had sold only a handful of copies in Britain.

“The difficulty with libel tourism is that an awful lot of people come here to sue when what they want really is the English judgment because they can go around the world and wave a paper, saying I have got a judgment from the high court in London – hahaha! This is vindication of my name without having to explain that in fact I did not have to prove anything at all!” Mike Dodd, Press Association’s specialist legal advisor.