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Government vows to reform "laughing stock" libel law

"Free speech is not for sale" - the motto of the Libel Reform Campaign

The U.K.'s coalition government has promised sweeping changes to England's much-criticised libel laws, paying tribute to Index on Censorship's libel reform campaign which has "led the debate on this issue for so long."

In a speech on civil liberties on 7 January in London, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg promised to publish a draft defamation bill in the spring that will crack down on "libel tourism" and provide a new statutory defence for those who speak out in the public interest, report Index and ARTICLE 19. The bill will also seek to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment and justification.

"Our aim is to turn English libel laws from an international laughing stock to an international blueprint" for reform, he said.

He also wants large corporations to show they have suffered substantial damage before they sue individuals and non-governmental organisations.

"The test of a free press is its capacity to unearth the truth, exposing charlatans and vested interests along the way. It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses."

Index has repeatedly warned that Britain's libel laws expose authors of academic papers to crippling actions. Among recent cases is that of science writer Simon Singh, who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for questioning the evidence on which it based treatment of asthma.

The draft bill will also try to restrict libel tourism. As it stands, foreign claimants can bring cases against foreign defendants to English courts even if the connection with England is tenuous.

It is a "farce and an international embarrassment" that the U.S. government has legislated to protect its citizens from English libel law, he added.

The bill will also update defamation laws on the Internet to provide greater defence for Internet service providers. Government sources said they were still working on details of how to handle libel online.

ARTICLE 19 points out that Clegg also promised to "end practices of closed and secretive government, giving people the information and freedom they need to hold the government and other institutions to account." One of his first moves will be to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to cover "potentially hundreds more bodies," he said.

Importantly, Clegg thanked the Libel Reform Campaign, an initiative by Index, English PEN and Sense About Science, for its support. Commenting after his speech, Clegg said, "Their tireless work has kept up the pressure on politicians of all parties to reform England's libel laws. I hope they feel they have been rewarded by the coalition government's announcement today."

John Kampfner, chief executive of Index, said, "Nick Clegg has set out an impressively robust agenda to change our defamation laws… The commitments he is making mark a victory for the more than 50,000 people who have backed the Libel Reform Campaign."

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