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Libel Reform

UPDATE: UK Defamation Bill has now passed in to law. See our statement here.

Among the many threats that Global Witness faces, by far the most common is legal action - both in terms of libel and breach of privacy. The crooked politicians and businessmen who we target in our investigations are often enormously rich, and can afford to use the law to crush freedom of speech, despite the fact that what we publish is true and in the public interest.

We regularly receive threats attempting to silence us, and always deal with these robustly. In July 2007, for example, the son of the President of the Republic of Congo, Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, used privacy laws to try and force us to remove certain documents from our website which showed that he had been using state oil revenues to fund his lavish personal lifestyle. We won the case, and were awarded costs - but it took an extremely long time to recover them. Our refusal to bow to this pressure set a precedent in the English courts on public interest and the laws on privacy.

Global Witness also works on international cases where freedom of speech is under threat, including a recent submission to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which challenged Max Moseley’s landmark attempt to force through tighter privacy laws in the UK.

In the last few years the incidence of ‘libel tourism’ – where people who live outside the UK use its courts to sue non-UK residents – has risen dramatically. This and the use of legal gagging orders such as injunctions and super-injunctions, have had a chilling effect on public interest campaigning. Well-known law firms in England, such as Carter Ruck and Schillings, often take such business on a "no-win, no-fee" basis. This exacerbates what is already a very difficult environment in the UK, where legal costs are significantly higher than in other countries.

England's claimant-friendly privacy and libel laws have for too long facilitated and encouraged such libel tourism. A common consequence is that civil society organisations, academics, scientists and the media engage in self-censorship, rather than risking a legal action that could threaten their existence. This is an understandable reaction, but a very dangerous one in a country that values freedom of speech.

The campaign for change

Since submitting a written and oral submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on UK Privacy and Libel Laws in 2009, Global Witness has strongly backed the Libel Reform Campaign led by Index on Censorship, Science about Science and English PEN. 

This campaigning began to bear fruit in March 2010, with then Justice Secretary Jack Straw announcing a sweeping review of privacy and libel laws. On the back of this report, Straw announced a range of reforms to be taken forward to the next parliament, including:

  • A ‘single publication rule’ to ensure that claimants in libel proceedings cannot bring a case against every publication or download of a story
  • Consideration of a statutory defence for publications in the public interest
  • Moves to prevent the growth of ‘libel tourism'

Also important was Straw’s proposal to limit the success fees that lawyers can charge under ‘no-win, no-fee’ agreements. Unfortunately this was blocked in early 2010 by a group of rebel Labour MPs.

The case for reform was strengthened in May 2010 by Lib Dim Peer Lord Lester's defamation bill, which incorporated and backed many of the Libel Reform Campaign’s key recommendations. The new coalition government has made encouraging noises, with Justice Minister Lord McNally announcing in July a new review of England's defamation laws and scheduling a draft bill for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny in the New Year. He recognised the "detrimental effects" that the current system has on freedom of speech and the public interest, and gave a "firm commitment" to prioritise reform by end of the 2011/12 parliamentary session.

Given that many previous government reviews have drawn very similar conclusions on the detrimental effect of these laws on freedom of speech and the public interest in the UK, Global Witness and its partners in the campaign for reform hope to see meaningful changes brought in as soon as possible.

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