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Ex-FIFA VP formally serves journalist notice of defamation suit

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, Feb 28, 2012 – Lawyers representing embattled former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner on Friday notified a Trinidadian journalist, Lasana Liburd, that their client planned to sue for libel and defamation over a series of articles linking Warner to missing emergency aid money for Haiti.

As the International Press Institute (IPI) reported last week, Liburd had followed up on a Sunday Times (U.K.) piece in which Haitian football officials said approximately €500,000 of an intended donation from FIFA and a South Korea businessman had never reached the earthquake-stricken country.

Attorneys for K.R. Lalla & Co. said in a letter to Liburd that his reporting had caused Warner “serious distress and embarrassment” and called allegations that Warner had stolen money designated for Haiti “false, malicious, and misleading and calculated to damage our client's reputation”.

The letter demanded that Liburd publish a retraction and an apology, and ordered the journalist to pay both Warner's legal costs and “a substantial sum to our client in order to demonstrate the baselessness of the allegation”. The “pre-action protocol” further stipulated that should Liburd fail to respond to the demands within 14 days, a defamation claim would be filed.

K.R. Lalla said in the letter they were acting with William McCormick, a British barrister who, according to news reports, defended British science journalist Simon Singh in a well-known 2010 libel case. MrCormick told IPI his firm's policy prevented him from further confirming his participation in the current case, but he did not deny it.

Warner's attorneys singled out one article in particular for its libel claim: “Warner Named in Haitian Aid Scandal”, published on Wired868.com, a news website that Liburd owns and edits, on Feb 12, 2012.

The article summarised the claims raised by the Sunday Times's investigation and contained a confirmation from FIFA that it had wired the funds in question to the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF), to which Warner acted as “special adviser”. Liburd also included a statement in which the global football governing body said it would freeze all financing to TTFF until it had received an explanation for the missing funds.

FIFA has since suspended Warner's pension payments and the TTFF has said Warner had sole control over the account to which the donation was wired, according to multiple media reports.

In a response published on Wired868.com, Liburd questioned Warner's motives and asked aloud whether “Warner considers himself immune from international criticism and repulsion and seeks only to use financial muscle to bully local media houses into looking the other way”.

“Perhaps most poignantly,” Liburd added, “Warner, in two weeks, has failed to produce a shred of evidence to disprove allegations that he misappropriated funds meant for the devastated Haitians.”

IPI research indicates that defamation laws in Trinidad and Tobago heavily favour the plaintiff and are geared toward protecting individual reputations. The country's current Libel and Defamation Act dates back to 1846 and does not allow for defences of justification or fair comment.

IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said, “Journalists have the right to report on matters of public interest – particularly when these involve officials of a democratically elected government. We strongly urge Mr. Warner to reconsider this suit, which reflects poorly on the state of press freedom in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Warner is currently Trinidad and Tobago's Minister of Works and Infrastructure and the chairman of the country's ruling United National Congress party.

In the coming months, IPI plans to engage with various Caribbean governments, including that of Trinidad and Tobago, as part of a campaign to abolish criminal-defamation laws across the region.

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