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Another Libel Tourist in the UK

The latest Private Eye (1203 p. 5) notes the latest example of “libel tourism” to come to London:

Schillings [for it is they] partner Simon Smith has issued a statement boasting of his victory on behalf of the tycoon and politician Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in the Ukraine, in his action against two editors and a journalist working for the Ukrainian online newspaper, Obozrevatel.

The paper does not have an English-language version, and the case was won by default as the defendants declined to cooperate. The Eye quotes a Ukraine blog (Foreign Notes, although it does not give the name) as observing that:

A compensation hearing is to take place later this year to determine the appropriate award of damages. The total number of regular readers of ‘Oboz’ in Great Britain would probably fill at least all the front row seats on the upper deck of a London bus. I hope the learned judges bear this in mind.

It’s particularly depressing to read about this, as a 2005 case had ended with a much-heralded ruling that there had to be “substantial” publication in England (sic – Scotland is different) for a case to be heard in London. The Guardian reported at the time:

Judges at the appeal court in London yesterday threw out a libel action against the Wall Street Journal’s online publication because only five people in England had read the allegedly defamatory item.

In a ground-breaking judgment, the court, headed by Lord Phillips, master of the rolls, ruled that internet publishers could not be sued in the English courts unless there has been a “substantial” publication in England.

Their ruling leaves Yousef Jameel, the wealthy Saudi Arabian who tried to sue the Wall Street Journal’s publisher – United States-based Dow Jones – in London, facing a bill of £150,000 for the online publication’s costs.

But what counts as “substantial”? Not long after, the courts decided that the purchase of 23 copies of Rachel Ehrenfeld’s Funding Evil via Amazon was sufficient to allow the Saudi billionaire Khalid Bin Mahfouz to sue the author in London. However, such is the monomania of the American right that this became a preposterous story of Muslims and “sharia” corrupting the British legal system rather than being just the latest manifestation of excessive libel laws that have favoured the wealthy and chilled free investigation for decades. The actual issues around libel tourism have been highlighted recently on Kristine Lowe’s media blog in relation to the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet, which is being sued by an Icelandic bank:

Earlier in the day, I’d had a chat with Bent Falbert, the editor-in-chief of Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet, who was growing ever more pessimistic about his attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement with Kaupthing.

Not that Falbert didn’t think the paper had a good case, but the costs of fighting a libel case in Britain is staggering. Falbert estimated it would cost four to five times as much as in Denmark. His paper stands accused of libelling Kaupthing in England when they translated several articles about the Icelandic economy to English and published them online.

So what was the Akhmetov case all about? A 2007 report from the Kyiv Post has some details:

…Obozrevatel’s chief editor [Oleh] Medvedev held a press conference in Kyiv on April 2 to deny any wrongdoing.

“Besides some negative moments, there were a lot of good things said about Akhmetov that were included in the articles,” he told the Post the same day.

Medvedev said all the material published consists of a collection of taped interviews with people who knew the Ukrainian billionaire in his youth.

“I think that for Ukraine, it was very important information,” he said.

…According to Mary Mycio, director of the IREX U-Media legal program, which has consulted Ukrainian journalists and paid legal fees for them in certain cases, “plaintiffs who are public officials and public figures are more likely to win a lawsuit against the media [in the UK] than in the United States and, probably, Ukraine.

…As for the claimant, “Akhmetov doesn’t have to win for there to be a chilling effect on Ukrainian media, who may be much more careful about what they write for fear of being hauled into a foreign courtroom.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, given the poor quality of most Ukrainian journalism.  But it will be bad if it means that media don’t publish even the things they can prove for fear of being sued.”

Medvedev is apparently a supporter of Yulia Tymoshenko, while Akhmetov is close to rival Viktor Yanukovych. A short profile of Akhmetov appeared in Forbes in 2005:

A practicing Muslim, Ukraine’s richest man comes from humble origins (his father and brother were coal miners). But he had powerful patrons–Victor Yanukovych, regional governor and later failed presidential candidate, and strongman Akhat Bragin (a.k.a. Alek the Greek), whose assets went to Akhmetov after he was murdered. Today Akhmetov’s company owns Ukraine’s third-largest steel producer, Azovstal, has coal interests worth $400 million and holds shares in a brewery, a newspaper and a mobile phone company…

The Financial Times noted in December that

[An] analyst, Andriy Yermolaev, sees a divide between pro-Yanukovich businessmen, led by Mr Akhmetov, whose companies are based in east Ukrainian heavy industry, and those oligarchs supporting the president and Ms Tymoshenko, who tend to have more diversified financial and trading interests, such as Igor Kolomoisky, head of the Privat banking-based group. “The rivalry between these two groups is quite damaging and ruthless,” says Mr Yermolaev.

Mr Yushchenko is particularly worried about Mr Akhmetov, who stands out among oligarchs as the richest and most overt in his political involvement. An MP for the Regions party, the largest in parliament, he has long backed Mr Yanukovich and worked with him in managing rich, Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine…

Ms Tymoshenko claims Mr Akhmetov profits from his loyalty to Mr Yanukovich, citing his recent acquisition of a stake in a big statecontrolled power generator, Dniproenergo. Mr Akhmetov has denied that he benefited from preferential treatment.

Akhmetov has also recently founded The Foundation for Effective Governance, which has as its board members “former U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee, former Canadian Prime Minister, Kim Campbell and former president of the National Bank of Hungary, Gyorgy Suranyi”; the Foundation’s launch included a satellite link-up with Shimon Peres. His other interests include the Shakhter Donetsk football club, of which he is president and he has in the past supported the Ukrainian Party of Muslims. Despite his faith, he also owns a brewery.

3 Responses

  1. […] June 20, 2008 by Richard Bartholomew British libel tourism is not just for Saudi billionaires and Ukrainian businessmen: an Israeli academic has now used the threat of the London High Court to have passages removed […]

  2. […] his blog by someone else. The need for “substantial publication” was established in a 2005 case involving a newspaper story which had been seen by no more than five people in the UK. It’s […]

  3. […] SOCNET has also left a comment on this blog, which I have removed due in living in a jurisdiction notorious for “libel tourism”. The comment made a number of troubling allegations about […]

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