Ukraine: Free Speech Versus Firtash

LONDON, England -- Journalists, writers and media freedom campaigners are, not surprisingly, delighted with the decision of a British judge on Thursday to throw out a libel claim filed by a Ukrainian billionaire against a Ukrainian newspaper.

Dmitry Firtash

Business people should be equally glad: the ruling will make it more difficult for foreign litigants to take advantage of Britain’s tough libel laws. Since these laws have often been used to suppress allegations of financial wrongdoing, it is in the interests of business people everywhere that journalists working in Ukraine and elsewhere can breathe a little more easily.

The advance of corporate transparency depends critically on the advance of media freedom.

As the Press Association reported, High Court Master John Leslie dismissed the case brought against the Kyiv Post by businessman Dmitry Firtash, saying that the link to the English jurisdiction was “tenuous in the extreme”.

Firtash had sought to sue the newspaper over an article it published which he said suggested corruption at RosUkrEnergo, a company he owned jointly with a Ukrainian partner and Gazprom, the Russian state gas group.

He wanted to bring the case in London even though the Kyiv Post article was thought to have been accessed on the internet by only 21 people in the UK.

PA reported that Master Leslie dismissed the case, saying, “There is no substantial connection to this jurisdiction.”

Brian Bonner, the Kyiv Post editor, told beyondbrics, “This is a tremendous victory for us. It’s a tremendous victory for free speech.”

The paper’s solicitor, Mark Stephens, said after the hearing, “This is one of the worst cases of libel tourism I’ve encountered in recent years. This is a dispute between a Ukrainian oligarch and a Ukrainian paper about matters in the Ukraine. It has no connection with the UK and the learned Master Leslie quite rightly threw the case out.”

Firtash’s legal action, launched late last year, prompted the Kyiv Post to block access to its website from the UK in protest. Bonner said on Thursday that the block would remain in place until it was clear that all the legal processes – including any possible appeal by Firtash – had been completed.

The case draws attention to the popularity of Britain’s far-reaching libel law with wealthy foreign litigants, who are attracted by the tough conditions imposed on journalists and their publishers on supporting the claims they make.

The US has passed legislation (the Speech Act and Libel Terrorism Acts) to protect authors and publishers.

As well as paying heavy damages, publishers who lose UK cases face huge legal bills as they are often obliged to cover the litigants’ costs on top of their own. Bonner estimated that for the Kyiv Post and its owner, businessman Mohammed Zahoor, the legal bills could have reached $1.5m compared with £39,000 spent on the Kyiv Post’s own costs.

But change is in the air. Nick Clegg, the UK’s deputy prime minister, has committed to bringing forward legislation to end libel tourism by May 2012, after lobbying by the Libel Reform Campaign.

The Libel Reform Campaign welcomed Thursday’s decision. Mike Harris of Index on Censorship told journalists:

A Ukrainian billionaire tried to drag a Ukrainian newspaper all the way to London to fight a libel case here.

Master Leslie has rightly thrown this case out. We can’t have our courts used to chill free speech in foreign countries. But it’s up to the government to bring our libel laws in the 21st century with reform in this Parliament.

However, the reform proposals still have a long way before they become law. The British Parliament includes among its members many lawyers, some of whom will be loathe to see the end of a very lucrative business.

Source: Financial Times