A haven for press freedom on Iceland?

It's great to learn that the Icelandic Modern Media Initiavtive has passed parliament, but I have my doubts that this actually will create a haven for freedom of speech and investigative reporting.

The reason? I've covered both libel tourism and Icelandic media closely for several years, and remain unconvinced that the new Icelandic legislation will remove the challenges in these two areas over night -  but, as I said the last time wrote about this, I'd love nothing better than to be proved wrong.

See also:

Update 20/6-10: see also my media column this week (in Norwegian)
Photo by me from my December 2008 reporting trip to Rekjavik, more on Flickr.

A blogging-journalist hero for Ada Lovelace Day

Danish IT-journalist Dorte Toft used her blog to help reveal one of the country’s biggest business scandals in modern time. It won her both acclaim and criticism.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, and, answering UK software consultant Suw Charman-Anderson’s call, over 1,500 blogger worldwide have pledged to write about a woman in tech they admire. As I believe we sorely need new journalistic heroes and new myths that better illustrate the opportunities offered by our rapidly changing media landscape, I thought I would take this opportunity to put forward one such hero: programmer turned blogger-journalist Dorte Toft. Full story over at Journalism.co.uk

I find it unbelievable that editors felt the need to emphasis that blogging doesn't replace journalism and warn of using blogs as a journalistic tool (in Danish) after Toft helped flush out the skeletons in the closet at IT Factory. Toft's work is a great example of both beat blogging and using a blog to do investigative research. It also reveals some of the major flaws in journalism today, and I have a feeling I shall return with some more thoughts on this story, an ALD09 post for Ada Lovelace Day, later. However, I really wanted to use my own blog to force myself to write an ALD09 post about a late mentor of mine.

High cost of UK libel cases shackles freedom of speech worldwide

When the headline "High cost of UK libel cases shackling UK newspapers, says study" popped up in my RSS-reader, it gave me an immediate urge to rephrase it:

We have ample evidence to conclude that this is not only a problem confined to Albion's green isle, it's a threat to freedom of speech worldwide.

In the interest of accuracy, one commenter was quick to point out that the problem here is English, not UK, libel law. However, because something is libellous where it is read, English libel law has become a global problem.

Several of the commenters on this article also point to that the survey it described was commissioned by Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers, and that maybe the high costs associated with such cases was just what was needed to deter newspapers from printing lies and libels, which is a valid point.

Still, the problem with English libel law is that due to the high cost of fighting a libel case in England AND because the law reverses the burden of proof - you're guilty until proven innocent - it has become an effective means to threathen people into silence.

Also, because something is libellous where it is read that threat is as effective in Scandinavia, or in theory in Kuala Lumpur, as in England - in the US lobbyists and politicians are even trying to get new laws in place that will protect US citizens from facing libel suits in England, motivated in part by the case of Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld and others (cases some have dubbed legal jihad or libel tourism ). For more examples, check my posts tagged libel and my delicious bookmarks tagged libel.

For the record, the study mentioned in the Guardian article is specifically focused on Conditional Fee agreements (CFA), but even without CFAs the cost of libel cases is still many times higher than in European countries it would be natural to compare England with. An interesting point from the study, called "A Comparative Study of Costs in Defamation Proceedings Across Europe", however: it concludes that the use of CFAs potentially contravenes articles 6 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in defamation and privacy cases - so could be interesting to see what happened if the matter was brough in for the European Court of Human Rights in Maastricht.

Update 25-02/09: see also Ministry of Justice consults on 'excessive' libel costs and Libel costs threatening regional newspapers, MPs told

Ekstra Bladet agrees to pay Kaupthing substantial libel damages

The peculiar case of the Icelandic bank who brought a libel suit against a Danish tabloid in London was finally settled today.

Icelandic bank Kaupthing said in a press release that Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet had agreed to pay the bank "very substantial damages", and cover "reasonable legal costs", in an settlement reached between the two parties. Ekstra Bladet has also apologised for the series of articles deemed to be libellous, which appeared, among other things, to accuse Kaupthing of tax evasion, and agreed to carry an apology on its news site for a month.

Bent Falbert, editor-in-chief of Ekstra Bladet, has been fighting to reach an out-of-court-settlement with Kaupthing from the beginning as he was frightened of the staggering costs of fighting a libel case in England.

Today, Berlingske quotes Falbert saying: ”I want to encourage my colleagues in the media industry to be very careful with translating articles to English. A small newspaper might end up folding if it is to pay the legal expenses for such a trial."

But translating articles to English or not is not the key issue here. "A claim could just as easily have been brought against Ekstra Bladet in London if news stories written in Danish were accessed by Danish speakers here," Nigel Hanson wrote in Press Gazette just after the case surfaced.

"According to law, a statement is libellous where it is read," David Carr, a lawyer who's advised bloggers on libel issues, told me when I talked to him about the threat of libel tourism. The story of how Norwegian financial daily Dagens Næringsliv was sued for libel in London some ten years ago, on the basis of how copies of the paper could be bought in London, is a good example of how this may be interpreted.

Update 15/2: according to Berlingske 'sources on Iceland' say Ekstra Bladet was forced to pay roughly £100.000 in damages to Kaupthing. The bank's legal expenses are understood to have been £50.000 - £70.000.

Danish newspapers reprint Mohammed cartoon

Today several Danish newspapers carry pictures of a controversial Mohammed cartoon, depicting the prophet as a suicide bomber, in sympathy with cartoonist Kurt Westergaard.

Many editors were shocked when a plot to murder Westergaard, for drawing caricatures satirising Mohammed, was unveiled yesterday. Editors at Politiken and Berlingske Tidende - along with Jyllands-Posten who first printed the cartoons in 2005 - pledged to reprint the most famous cartoon today.

'We have to send a clear and unambiguous signal to all who might get the same crazy idea as those who wanted to attack Kurt Westergaard. We have to make clear that in Denmark we don't accept that freedom of speech is locked up by religious zealots or held hostage to religious fanaticism,' Lisbeth Knudsen, editor-in-chief of Berlingske, told Jyllands-Posten (my translation).

The threat of law suit
She said Berlingske would reprint the cartoon as an illustration to a news story. That is much the same use of the cartoon that Ezra Levant, the publisher of Western Standard, was brought in front of the Alberta Human Rights Commission in Canada to defend. Columnist Mark Steyn has also had similar human rights complaints brought against him recently, on the basis of his writing.

In mid-January, The American Spectator published a story on what the writer, Booke M. Goldstein, a practising attorney, thought amounted to nothing less than legal jihad, listing a number of cases where publications had been brought to court or threatened with libel suits for offending or libelling Muslim dignity or dogmas. Among those cases were all the law suits against the now deceased Orianna Fallaci, and the more than 30 publishers and authors Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi-Arabian billionaire, has threatened to sue in British courts.

Since first publishing the Mohammed cartoons, Jyllands-Posten have fought off several law suits from various Muslim organisations

(I've written more on these libel threats here and here, in Norwegian)

A different twist on libel tourism

The web has made the world so much smaller, and in my last post I focused on one of the flipsides of this: the 'spectre of libel tourism'. But the global nature of the web has only exacerbated a problem that is just as much result of a globalised world where reputation has become a global commodity.

'Libel tourism' is equally a threat to broadcasters – the European Broadcasting Corporation (EBU) has lobbied for more uniform European regulation on this for years, unfortunately without much success – and, while researching this topic, I stumbled across an incident where an old-fashion print newspaper was involved. Back in the nineties (the newspaper's correction appeared in 1997), Fiba Nordic Securities Ltd, later called CI Nordic Securities Ltd, sued Dagens Naeringsliv, Norway's biggest financial daily, for libel in London.

The rationale, it seems, was that you could buy the newspaper in London ( I say it seems, because the memory of both the person in charge of the journalistic side of the affair, and the man who dealt with the legal side of it, was a bit flimsy on this point, but they both told me the same story independently of each other, so I think we can assume this was the rationale). In any case, Dagens Naeringsliv's legal team managed to negotiate an out-of-court settlement, and thus a British court case was prevented.

Which brings me to this analysis by Nigel Hanson (via Roy Greenslade), that appeared in The Press Gazette a few weeks after the Kaupthing/Ekstra Bladet story surfaced:

"What is interesting in the Kaupthing case is that an editor whose newspaper is aimed primarily at Danish speakers now feels it may be “dangerous” to translate and publish in English online. Actually, a claim could just as easily have been brought against Ekstra Bladet in London if news stories written in Danish were accessed by Danish speakers here, but perhaps English poses a greater risk because so many more potential readers speak English.

"It would be a bad day for freedom of expression and information if the UK’s claimant-friendly libel laws led to any reduction of English-language content on the internet."

'Libel tourism is a threat to all web publishers, and something we'll se a lot more of in times to come'

'It's the dark side of internet and globalisation that nobody likes to talk about, said David Carr, a London-based lawyer who's assisted several bloggers with libel issues, when I asked him about the peculiar case of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing who's sued Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet for libel in London (for this and this article, in Norwegian).

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.

Kaupthing's lawyers argue that this means the 'offence' - they claim the articles are highly libellous - took place in England. "It's frightening if you can be sued in any country in the world if you write in English, then we could just as well be sued in Australia," said Falbert. But that is exactly the case said Carr:

"According to law, a statement is libellous where it is read. This is the downside of the internet's globalisation of information that nobody likes to think about. When something appears on the web, it appears all over the world: you could potentially face libel suits all over the world.

"It could just as well be in Australia, where libel laws are even worse, or in France, where you have some very odd historic laws," he said, and predicted that this was something we would see happening more: "We're going to see people shopping for the legal systems most beneficial to them a lot more."

"UK libel law reverts the burden of proof, which is extremely useful if you want to threaten someone. UK libel law could easily be spread all over the world and become the world's libel law by default," said Carr, adding that just hiring a libel lawyer is very expensive, and something only the very rich can afford.

Another interesting story on this is that of Rachel Ehrenfeld (some more perspectives on that here (via Martin Stabe).

Jon Wessel-Aas, a lawyer for Norway's public broadcaster (NRK) told me that the current situation, where it's unclear which countries' laws applies to where, effectively serves to restrict freedom of speech. 'Libel tourism' is also a problem for broadcasters who's broadcasts can be picked up in other countries than where they broadcast.

I might add a few more notes on this later, time allowing

Icelandic bank takes Danish tabloid to court - in London

Kaupthing has sued Extra Bladet for libel at a London court after the Danish tabloid, in a series of articles about the Icelandic economy, accused the bank of being tax dodgers. (via Berlingske, in Danish).

The rationale for suing in London? Extra Bladet translated the articles to English and published them on its website. This, according to Kaupthing's lawyers, who argue that the articles are highly libellous, means the offence took place in England.

The bank has previously brought an unsuccessful complaint against the tabloid to the Danish press complaints commission.

It's the first time ever that a Danish newspaper is being taken to court in another country for publishing defamatory articles on its news site.

Extra Bladet's editor-in-chief, Bent Falbert, told Berlingske: "It's quite interesting that someone can take us to court in another country for something we have written on our news site. That means we could just as well have been sued in Los Angles or Bejing where you also can sit and read English texts online. If that is the criteria, it's dangerous to use English texts on a news site."

However, a quick Google search showed me that this case is not without precedence. In May 2005, Rachel Ehrenfeld, an Israeli-born author now living in New York, was sued at the high court in London by a Saudi billionaire after she made allegations about him in a book on terrorism. She was sued in London on the basis that 23 copies were bought by individuals in Britain via internet booksellers.

There might be many more examples of this of course, but it was new to me, and Extra Bladet is still shell-shocked, working feverently to reach a settlement before the case goes to court. Not that they don't believe they have a good case, but the sheer cost of an English trial compared to a Danish one is so daunting that even in the case of victory the legal expenses alone would be enough to bankrupt a smaller newspaper...