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Wed 23 Feb 2011 05:09 PM

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Wish you were here?

A Saudi sheikh may be last to benefit from the UK’s lucrative libel tourism trade

Wish you were here?
The High Court, London has been the scene of many so-called libel tourism cases

A Saudi Arabian sheikh and a Ukrainian businessman may be among the last of the so-called libel tourists in the UK.

The government may rewrite defamation laws that currently allow a non-citizen to sue a foreign media outlet for reputational damage claims in the UK. That would close the door for people who’ve sometimes used London courts to silence critics. US film director Roman Polanski, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky have won suits filed under the statute.

Labeling the law a “laughing stock,” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg vowed to publish a draft bill this spring, targeting libel tourism and the high costs of bringing suit. The law, whose critics say it’s only accessible to the rich, dates back to Victorian times and is plaintiff-friendly, placing the burden of proof on the defendant, contrary to laws in the US and most of continental Europe.

“Britain’s libel law is not only archaic and outdated but incredibly expensive,” said Mike Harris, public affairs consultant at Libel Reform, citing hourly legal fees $650. “The law is used by rich people who will pay whatever they can to defend their reputations.”

Ukrainian billionaire Dimitry Firtash is suing the Kyiv Post, a Kiev, Ukraine-based newspaper, over a story on his gas company, RosUkrEergo, which he says suggests corruption.

Saudi sheikh Mohammed Hussein Ali Al Amoudi is suing over a story in the US-based Ethiopian Review website that he says alleges family improprieties.

Advocates of the current law say the debate is overblown, pointing out that few libel cases make it to trial.

“Unlike in the US, we balance the right to reputation with freedom of speech,” said Nigel Tait, a partner at prominent British libel law firm Carter-Ruck, who has represented Elton John and Simon Cowell. “Our laws and procedures are fair all around.”

The changes will only drive fees up with claimants having to prove more and lawyers racking up more hours, he said.

“We have a reputation for fairness and honesty,” he said, adding that individuals from former Soviet Union countries and the Middle East often choose London to file claims because courts are more neutral.

The Firtash suit says the Kyiv Post article alleges “massive criminal corruption” that could threaten the “fiscal stability” of Ukraine and “the energy security of Europe.” His lawyer, Simon Smith, declined to comment on the matter.

According to Kyiv Post editor Brian Bonner, Firtash said his reputation was damaged even though barely anyone in the UK read the article. The newspaper has since blocked UK access to its website, fearing similar claims. Bonner said the newspaper is ready to settle the case.

“We’re a Ukrainian newspaper and he’s a Ukrainian businessman and 30 people downloaded this in the UK,” Bonner said. “If we lose, estimates are this could cost $1.5m in fees, which is a huge price for an independent paper sold two years ago for $1.1m.”

Saudi sheikh Al Amoudi, who owns several properties in the UK, said a story in the US-based Ethiopian Review website has subjected him to “serious libel centered around one of his young, unmarried daughters.”

“The Al Amoudi case is definitely libel tourism because Sheikh Al Amoudi lives for the most part outside the UK and is not a British citizen and the majority of readers of the Ethiopian Review are outside the UK,” Libel Reform’s Harris said. He said the draft bill is expected in late March.

The sheikh, through a spokesman, disagreed with any characterization of his claim as libel tourism and said that “the libels have been published via an international website with a considerable readership in the UK.”

He also added that “the publisher of these allegations has for a long time been critical of the sheikh.”

Al Amoudi’s lawyer, Ruth Hoy, couldn’t be reached for comment on the case. The statement said the suit was brought in the UK “because of the considerable connections that the sheikh and his family have to the UK, where significant publication and damage has occurred.”

The issue came to the fore after American author Rachel Ehrenfeld was sued in London by Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz for alleging his links to funding terrorism, even though only 23 copies of the book were sold in the UK.

“People can bring cases here that they simply shouldn’t be able to; the threshold is so low,” said David Hooper, a lawyer at law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain. “We need to get to grips with the Internet age.”

The web has made publications and articles borderless, rendering current UK laws obsolete, some lawyers say.

“We have outdated Victorian libel laws and the assumption that everyone tells the truth is ridiculous,” said Mark Stephens, a media lawyer who worked on the Ehrenfeld case and is defending the Kyiv Post and Ethiopian Review. Stephens represents several media organizations in the UK, including Bloomberg News.

Plaintiffs have been so successful in these cases that lawyers operate on conditional fee agreements, meaning they only get paid if they win. Changing libel laws might make such cases more expensive, said Steven Heffer, head of media at Collyer Bristow Solicitors in London.

“The burden should remain where it is; why should it be for you to prove that you’re not something,” he said. “If a journalist makes an allegation they have to back it up.”

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