Thursday

28th May 2020

East European criminals and politicians taking 'libel tourism' trips to UK

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.

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.

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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 her.

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 apologised.

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 eastern Europe."

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 damage,"

"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 Office.

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