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Freedom House applauds US law combatting "libel tourism"

(Freedom House/IFEX) - Washington - August 16, 2010 - Freedom House commends new legislation signed by President Obama last week shielding journalists, authors and publishers from becoming victims of defamation lawsuits filed in countries with overly permissive libel laws.

The practice of filing lawsuits in foreign countries with weak libel protections, termed "libel tourism," is widely used by wealthy individuals and high profile public figures to suppress accusations of wrongdoing. The legislation signed by President Obama prevents U.S. federal courts from recognizing judgments from foreign courts that are not in line with U.S. constitutional protections for free expression. England is the most high profile country where these lawsuits take place; although Brazil, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore have also been noted as having weak protections for journalists, researchers and publishers.

"Regardless of the final outcome in courts, the high financial burden generated by 'libel tourism' lawsuits presents a dangerous disincentive for exposing wrongdoing by government officials, businesspersons and private citizens," said Paula Schriefer, advocacy director at Freedom House. "We urge authorities in England and in other countries with similar laws to reform them in order to lift the chill on free expression."

Libel laws in England heavily favor the plaintiff, with the defendant bearing the burden of proof. As a result, the country has become an increasingly popular destination for "libel tourism" in which foreign plaintiffs bring libel actions against foreign defendants in British courts, regardless of where the alleged offense occurred. Defendants in these cases often choose to retract allegedly defamatory statements, whether true or not, to avoid being subject to lengthy and expensive trials. Although the need for reform has become a topic of greater discussion in England, no action to change the law is imminent.

The United Kingdom is ranked Free in "Freedom in the World 2010", Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties and Free in Freedom of the Press 2010.

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