guardian.co.uk | Britain’s libel laws have come under attack from the United Nations committee on human rights for discouraging coverage of matters of major public interest. The use of the Official Secrets Act to deter government employees from raising important issues has also been criticised.
The intervention by the UN comes in the wake of international disquiet over the use of British courts for “libel tourism”, whereby wealthy plaintiffs can sue in the high court in London over articles that would not warrant an action in their own country.
The criticisms are made as part of the committee’s concluding observations on the report submitted by the UK on civil and political rights. UN member states are required to submit reports on human rights in their jurisdictions every three years.
The committee warns that the British libel laws have “served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work, including through the phenomenon known as libel tourism”.
The case that has provoked the most concern is that of an American researcher, Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was sued in London by a Saudi businessman and his two sons over a book that sold 23 copies over the internet into the UK, where it was never officially published. One chapter of the book was available online.
The action led to the New York state legislature passing legislation to protect writers and publishers working there from defamation judgements in any country that does not give the same same freedom of speech rights as New York and US federal law.
The committee’s report highlights the grey area created by the internet whereby alleged libel can be read in different countries. There is a risk, warns the committee, that restrictive libel laws could affect legitimate international discussion, contrary to article 19 of the covenant on civil and political rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of speech “regardless of borders”.
The UK government has been urged to consider “a so-called ‘public figure’ exception” that would require a would-be claimant to prove actual malice by a publisher or author.
This would apply in cases involving public officials and prominent public figures, as currently exists in the US, where a public figure can only sue for libel if he or she can demonstrate malice, recklessness or indifference to the truth and that the statement is false.
On the Official Secrets Act, the committee “remains concerned” that powers under the act have been “exercised to frustrate former employees of the crown from bringing into the public domain issues of genuine public interest, and can be exercised to prevent the media from publishing such matters”. The committee found the act is used even when issues of national security are not involved.
The 2006 Terrorism Act’s “broad and vague” definition of the offence of “encouragement of terrorism” was also criticised by the committee.
Media law specialist Mark Stephens, of legal firm Finers Stephens Innocent, said: “I think it is quite remarkable that the UK government has drawn these deficiencies in our libel laws to the attention of the United Nations, while at the same time libel lawyers in this country have remained insouciant to the deficiencies highlighted by the UN.”