East European criminals and politicians taking 'libel tourism' trips
12.01.2010 @ 17:42 CET
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Organised criminals, businessmen and
politicians, particularly from eastern Europe, are flocking to the UK
courts to file libel cases to punish and scare off journalists who ask
too many awkward questions, threatening the very existence of
publications in the east that engage in investigative journalism.
London - a libel capital (Photo: Deryc Sands)
English and Welsh courts, where the burden of proof is borne by the
accused rather than the complainant, have become the jurisdiction of
choice for oligarchs and mafiosi. Saudi billionaires and even
totalitarian governments regularly take advantage of UK laws that say
that a journalist is guilty until proven innocent, according to a
report by an editor with the Center for Investigative Reporting in
Bosnia-Herzegovina (CIN), Drew Sullivan.
The report, published last week by the US-based Center for
International Media Assistance, says that while the problem of "libel
tourism" is an old one, in recent years as daily newspapers, which to
a greater or lesser extent had the funds to stand up for their
reporters in court, have abandoned investigative reporting, the baton
has been taken up by smaller, non-profit web-publishing outfits that
are in a much more precarious situation.
"By publishing online, a media organisation faces the risk of libel
and defamation suits in just about every jurisdiction in the world,"
the report says.
"[The UK's] plaintiff-friendly laws, high defamation awards, strong
willingness of British courts to accept jurisdiction, and exorbitant
cost of legal fees make the United Kingdom perfect for oligarchs,
organised crime figures, and wealthy businessmen. "
Ireland and France too are increasingly popular stopovers on the libel
tourism trail, although Paris is attractive not because of the size of
the awards (which are capped at €12,000), but because libel is still
considered a criminal case. A journalist branded a criminal sometimes
serves a complainant' s interests much more than bankrupting him or
In one example from June, 2008, Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov
sued Ukraine's Kyiv Post newspaper and Obozrevatel, a news website,
over stories about him. The Kyiv Post only had around 100 subscribers
in Britain, but fears were such that the Post rapidly settled and
Obozrevatel, which had almost no visitors from the United Kingdom and
published only in Ukrainian, could not afford to defend itself and so
Mr Akhmetov won a default judgment of £50,000.
"From press accounts and parliamentary testimony, we know that in the
UK, there are even lawyers who will read the newspapers just to
identify possible cases, call the people involved and suggest a suit
in order to drum up business," Mr Sullivan told EUobserver. "It's a
sort of libel ambulance chasing."
Mr Sullivan's own civil society 'start-up' at the CIN, the Organised
Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, regularly feels the heat from
the subjects of its investigations, requiring the publication to have
a British lawyer kept on retainer.
"For our work, we are investigating organised crime figures,
politicians, businessmen of fairly high standing in the community. In
the 1990s in Russia, say, they would just send some guys to beat us
up, but this is a bit harder to do now, so they are using the legal
route to do basically the same thing. It's been very effective in
He said that the OCCRP is considering shutting off access to the UK to
put an end to the lawsuits: "We have maybe two percent of our
readership there, but the UK is causing 97 percent of our risk."
Media lawyer Mark Stephens, who specialises in battling the libel
tourists, explained to this website how things have accelerated in the
last few years. "It really started off [in the 1950s], with Liberace
suing over accusations that he was a homosexual, which he won. This
opened the floodgates to a large number of celebrities doing the same
thing for many years. This died away more recently when they began to
realise that it was cheaper and more effective to spend a million on a
PR man than a team of lawyers, and with much less reputational
"The claimant lawyers then moved on to Russian oligarchs, Gulf
billionaires, multinationals and heads of totalitarian states, making
London in recent years the libel capital of the world."
But the problem is not limited to the east. In 2007, the Icelandic
investment bank Kaupthing sued Ekstra Bladet, a Danish newspaper,
after a reporter wrote articles critical of the bank's handling of tax
shelters for the wealthy. While Ekstra Bladet stories were republished
in English on a Danish website that gets few or no visitors from the
UK, British courts accepted jurisdiction after the bank argued that
London was a major banking centre and Kaupthing's chief executive
resided in Britain.
Fearing the huge costs of the case, the paper sought a settlement from
the beginning and eventually paid Kaupthing's legal fees and
additional damages, apologising to the bank.
One of the institutions at the heart of the collapse of the Icelandic
economy, Kaupthing nevertheless in December 2009 became the subject of
a investigation into the bank's practices by the UK's Serious Fraud
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