Libel tourist Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz has left an unexpected legacy, says Rachel Ehrenfeld. US reporters may soon be free from the threat of English libel laws
The Saudi royal family’s banker, Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, was a regular on the Forbes billionaires list. Even so, it took the New York Times two weeks after his death on 15 August to carry his obituary, which was based mostly on his own website.
The Western media generally shied away from writing about the 60-year-old former owner the Saudi National Commercial Bank (NCB), the biggest bank in the Middle East. But his actions ultimately made Americans aware of a serious threat to their free speech rights, coming from abroad.
Bin Mahfouz frequently responded to criticism by using English libel laws that allow foreigners to sue other foreigners in English courts a practice known as “libel tourism”. He used the threat of lawsuits to intimidate American publishers and writers, in print and on the Internet. While these English libel laws date back to 1849, they continue to infringe Americans’ constitutional right for free expression.
As the only American author who stood up to bin Mahfouz’s campaign to silence US writers and publishers, I would like to note that the Saudi billionaire didn’t win his many libel lawsuits in the UK on merit, as the Saudi newspapers and even the New York Times obituary suggested. Nor was it due to his near-unlimited financial resources. Rather, he used England’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws to intimidate most into submission.
Bin Mahfouz sued numerous writers and publishers — mostly Americans — because he did not like their criticism. He made libel tourism a multimillion-dollar industry for the British bar, and London the “libel capital” of the world. Bin Mahfouz succeeded using libel tourism as a weapon to intimidate the Western media not only from reporting not only on his activities, but even on his death.
Mahfouz’s death may well have left the international law firm, Akin Gump, sad to lose this wealthy and highly litigious client. Likewise, the English bar might also be upset, especially other counsel who represented Mahfouz.
Mr Justice Eady will surely miss Mahfouz. Eady’s judgments in cases brought by Mahfouz made him (in)famous for allowing libel tourism to be used as a weapon to silence critics of Saudi Arabia the world over. Even the UN Human Rights Commission last year warned Britain that its libel tourism industry has become a tool to suppress the media’s free speech rights and that it endangered national security.
The serial libel tourist Khalid bin Mahfouz is dead. But the war he helped finance to silence and co-opt the Western media, together with pernicious British libel tourism practices, are alive and well. Unfortunately, the US government did nothing to stop his activities on either front when he was alive.
But the US Congress now has the opportunity to reverse Mahfouz’s legacy.
A law to protect Americans’ free speech is a legacy Mahfouz never intended. In May 2008, New York State was the first to pass the Libel Terrorism Protection Act, protecting New Yorkers from the likes of bin Mahfouz. Illinois and Florida passed similar laws and in California, the governor is about to sign the anti-libel tourism law.
Moreover, as a direct result of vbin Mahfouz’s libel tourism, the bi-partisan Free Speech Protection Act 2009 is now pending in Congress. Sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter, Joseph Lieberman, Charles Schumer and Ron Wyden, the bill is widely supported by major writers and publishers organizations in the US.
This bill would protect Americans free speech rights from foreign libel judgments that do not provide protection similar to the US Constitution, and allow damages to deter libel tourists. The law will mean that US-based journalists, researchers and publishers will no longer need to face the threat of “libel tourism”, and will be able to resume investigating the likes of bin Mahfouz without fear.
Rachel Ehrenfeld’s book, Funding Evil; How terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It,” was banned in the U.K. after Khalid bin Mahfouz’s pursuit of libel tourism was rewarded, by Justice Eady ruling against it in London’s High Court.
Ehrenfeld is director of American Center for Democracy (www.acdemocracy.org)