[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115804″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship has joined with other press freedom organisations to strongly condemn the legal action that has been filed at the London High Court against the Swedish business and finance publication, Realtid, in connection with their investigation on the financing of energy projects involving a Swedish businessman.
We, along with Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, Media Defence and European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), are concerned about the use of litigation tactics to intimidate journalists into silence. The organisations consider the case, which was filed in November, to be a strategic lawsuit against public Participation (Slapp), which is aimed at intimidating publications, and the journalists who write for them, into silence.
Realtid is being sued by Svante Kumlin, a Swedish businessman, domiciled in Monaco. Realtid had been investigating Kumlin’s group of companies, Eco Energy World (EEW), ahead of an impending stock market launch in Norway, a matter of clear public interest. The investigation began in September when Realtid’s reporters wrote about another stock market launch and discovered off-market sales of shares in EEW. Prior to publishing, the journalists contacted the company for an interview and for reply but did not receive a response.
In October, after publishing the report, the journalists once more tried to contact the people behind the company, including Kumlin to exercise their right of reply. After Kumlin declined to be interviewed, the journalists sent 14 questions that Kumlin could answer in writing, but Kumlin answered that his legal counsel “will respond to you directly”.
This was followed by several emails and attached letters from both a law firm in the United Kingdom, TLT Solicitors, and from Monaco, Gardetto. The firms threatened legal action in both countries if Realtid continued to investigate and to publish its investigations into the company and its owners.
On 20 November, Kumlin and TLT Solicitors filed a defamation lawsuit at the High Court in London against Realtid, its editor-in-chief and the two reporters behind the story.
In their letters the lawyers accuse the editor-in-chief, Camilla Jonsson, and the reporters, Per Agerman and Annelie Östlund, of defamation for publishing false information, and breaching a non-disclosure agreement by sharing, what the lawyers claim to be, confidential information. They also claim that Realtid violated Swedish press ethics and laws. If the latter claim is accurate, there are existing procedures to handle the case through the Swedish Media Ombudsman.
It is our assessment that it is inappropriate to threaten the magazine and the journalists with legal action in two jurisdictions, including by citing large fines and prison sentences.
“The fact that investigative journalists in Sweden, publishing in Swedish, for a Swedish readership could be inundated with threatening legal letters from other jurisdictions is outrageous,” said Jessica Ní Mhainín, senior policy and advocacy officer at Index on Censorship. “Realtid’s courage in the face of these threats has been incredible, but whether or not a newsworthy investigation is published shouldn’t come down to individual courage. We need to put an end to Slapps with legislation.”
“The email conversations between the lawyers and Realtid are unpleasant reading”, says Erik Halkjaer, president of Reporters Without Borders Sweden (RSF Sweden). “It is obvious that these types of legal threats, or Slapps can be used as a threatening tool, as sharp as any weapon, to silence journalists. I strongly condemn the actions of Kumlin, who should know better. The people at Realtid should know that they have our and several other Swedish organisations strong support in this.”
Despite the continuous threats, Realtid has continued its solid journalistic investigations. Between 29 September and 13 November, the newspaper published ten articles on this investigation. Kumlin repeatedly declined to answer questions, despite the reporters having digital recordings and public documents proving the content of their articles.
“We know that over half of the cross-border Slapp suits facing journalists from Europe emanate from London. As anti-Slapp measures are being introduced in Brussels, there is an urgent need for the UK to reform its plaintiff-friendly system in line with its stated commitments to uphold and promote media freedom globally,” said Sarah Clarke, head of Europe for Article 19.
After taking an interest in the coverage of Realtid, the Norwegian financial paper Dagens Naeringsliv started its own investigation on the same story. Shortly after doing so, they too were contacted by TLT Solicitors, who used their legal action against Realtid to issue similar threats.
“Investigative journalism is essential to holding people in positions of power and responsibility to account. Journalists who do this work should not be subject to aggressive legal claims in plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions designed to intimidate and oppress. Any dispute between the parties should be resolved before the appropriate forum, in Sweden,” said Padraig Hughes, legal director of Media Defence.
Norway and Sweden are ranked 1st and 4th out of 180 countries in RSF´s 2020 Press Freedom Index. The United Kingdom is ranked 35th out of 180.
Lady Apostle Helen Ukpabio was banned from travel to the UK in April 2014
Lady Apostle Helen Ukpabio is a pastor, author, film producer, actress, artist, composer and singer and founder of Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, based in Calabar, Nigeria. She is also, as one would suspect of someone with such a CV, possessed of admirable chutzpah.
It emerged this week that Ukpabio is threatening to sue the British Humanist Association to the tune of half a billion pounds (to be precise, £500,010,500 in costs and compensation). Ukpabio claims that the BHA, and their companions at the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network, have defamed her. Her specific claim against the BHA is that an article on its website claimed she believed that noisy babies may be possessed by Satan.
The article, which appeared in July 2009, says that Ukpabio wrote in her book, Unveiling The Mysteries Of Witchcraft, that “A child under two years of age that cries at night and deteriorates in health is an agent of Satan”.
In this, the article is mistaken. Ukpabio’s book does not seem to contain this sentence. Rather, under the heading “How To Recognise A Witch”, Ukpabio writes: “Under the age of two, the child screams at night, cries, is always feverish suddenly deteriorates in health, puts up an attitude of fear, and may not feed very well.”
This is not, you will see, the same. But a misquote is one thing; a libel is quite another.
The placing of this misquote at the centre of Ukpabio’s claim is based on the premise that it is fundamentally worse to accuse a child of being possessed by a devil than it is to accuse a child of being a witch, or possessed by a witch, or a vampire (as mentioned in the initial legal threat).
This is the stuff of a particularly heated thread on a Dungeons and Dragons board. It is not an argument that has a place in a chamber at the Royal Courts of Justice, in spite of that building’s Gormenghastish architecture.
That’s not the only reason the case shouldn’t come to court: the article in question was published over five years ago, apparently without ill effect on the lady Ukpabio. She admits to not having seen the article on the BHA website until earlier this year.
Her complaint, in reality, is not about the 2009 article, or the difference between satanic possession and witchcraft. Ukpabio’s underlying complaint is about a campaign to have her banned from the country in April 2014. It is the coverage of her controversial trip to Britain in April that her lawyer claims caused her to suffer reputational injury.
So why, rather than attack the numerous news outlets who reported negatively on her UK visit, during which a London venue cancelled her booking after being alerted to her witchfinding and exorcising activities, is she instead pursuing threatening humanists?
At the World Humanist Congress in Oxford last month, Nigerian delegates such as the brilliant, brave Leo Igwe, spoke passionately about preachers and witchfinders like the Lady Apostle. While in Britain “militant atheist” has become a term of abuse associated with the gauche tweets of Professor Richard Dawkins, in Nigeria, a forthright approach to religion and the abuses carried out in its name is a necessity. Humanists there are not fighting semantic battles; rather, they are engaged in a real struggle to save children and vulnerable people from accusations of witchcraft and possession: accusations that could lead to them being thrown out of their homes, beaten and even killed.
What scant support Nigerian activists receive comes from the international atheist and humanist community. While I would not cast doubt on western humanists’ solidarity with their Nigerian comrades, a costly court case would make anyone think twice before getting involved in faraway struggles again.
To grant Ukpabio’s claim any credence would be to severely inhibit the struggle against dangerous superstitions in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. To even get involved in an legal argument over whether satanic possession is worse than witchcraft would grant a glimmer of legitimacy to the abuse of children in the name of God. That is reason enough for the English High Court to dismiss the Lady Apostle’s ludicrous lawsuit.
At a conference in Prague last Spring, I listened as the wife of a former diplomat quizzed a Russian journalist on Russian politics. An old Cold War hand, she was keen to discover what motivated Putin and his cadre. Was it some hankering after communism? Was it plain nationalism?
The journalist, displaying the scepticism bordering on cynicism that, ironically, is often found among journalists bravely reporting in monstrous circumstances, shrugged. It would be a mistake, she suggested, to ascribe any value or ideology, even one as meagre as nostalgia, to the current Kremlin. Putin’s regime is about power and money and absolutely nothing else. There is no Putinism. There is just gangsterism.
It’s probably worth keeping this in mind while we fret over the geopolitics of Putin’s Crimean Anschluss. Indeed more than that, it’s clearly a point of view that merits more study. Unfortunately, one recent study of Putin’s gangster tendencies has been suppressed: not by the Kremlin, but by a UK academic publisher living in fear of England’s libel laws.
Karen Dawisha, Director of Miami University’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, was set to publish a book on Putin’s gangster connections. One hesitates to use the dread stock book review phrase “timely and relevant”, but in this case it seems difficult to avoid it. The proposed subtitle “How, why and when did Putin decide to build a Kleptocratic and Authoritarian Regime in Russia and what is its Future?” gives a pretty good impression of what the book would contain.
According to Ed Lucas at the Economist, Dawisha’s publishers, Cambridge University Press, has taken fright at the prospect of a book actually investigating gangsterism among Putin and his cronies, and decided it will not publish the book.
In a letter to Dawisha, published by the Economist, John Haslam of CUP noted:
“After discussion with legal colleagues who have reviewed the typescript from both a US and UK legal perspective, I’m afraid that our view is that we are not in a position to proceed with your book. The decision has nothing to do with the quality of your research or your scholarly credibility. It is simply a question of risk tolerance in light of our limited resources.”
Haslam goes on:
“We have no reason to doubt the veracity of what you say, but we believe the risk is high that those implicated in the premise of the book—that Putin has a close circle of criminal oligarchs at his disposal and has spent his career cultivating this circle—would be motivated to sue and could afford to do so. Even if the Press was ultimately successful in defending such a lawsuit, the disruption and expense would be more than we could afford, given our charitable and academic mission.”
This is depressing reading, and sadly familiar.
Six and a half years ago, Cambridge University Press was faced with a similar problem, and reacted in a similar fashion, i.e. capitulation.
Back then, publishers’ dreams were tormented not by Russian gangsters but Saudi bankers. Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz was the scourge of Fleet Street’s inhouse legal teams. The Saudi, who had bought Irish citizenship from kleptocrat Taoiseach Charles Haughey, was notorious for issuing threats and writs to any publication or publisher that so much as mentioned him – particularly when it came to suggestions that he may have been linked, either personally or financially, to Osama Bin Laden.
Everyone I mentioned in that last paragraph is dead now, by the way, which is why I feel no qualms about writing about any of them.
When Index first wrote about Bin Mahfouz there were many, many fraught discussions and even arguments about how to proceed. That’s a big part of what campaigners, lawyers and hacks mean when they talk about the “chilling effect” of defamation laws. The knowledge of working on something that could be ruinuous not just personally, but for an entire publication, can make you queasy and put your colleagues on edge. The fact that Bin Mahfouz, worth over $3.2 billion dollars, could have tied up even the biggest publications in endless, expensive litigation tended to put people off. Even when people did publish, in the end they always backed down in the face of the Sheikh’s muscle. His personal website featured an entire section dedicated to apologies hastily issued by terrified newspaper legal departments after Bin Mahfouz threatened them with a trip to the High Court.
Anyway, in 2007, CUP were about to publish a book on funding for Islamist terror, called Alms For Jihad. Bin Mahfouz got wind of it, and issued the usual threats via his lawyers, Kendall Freeman. CUP apparently jumped through a few hoops, asking the book’s American authors, Robert O Collins and J Millard Burr to compile a letter countering the claims in bin Mahfouz’s book. But in the end they pulped the book and recalled library copies. It was a low point, but in a curious way, some good came out of it. The Alms For Jihad case was among those that highlighted the serious problems with English defamation law. Not long after the pulping of Alms For Jihad, the first stirrings of the Libel Reform Campaign began. On 1 January 2014, a new defamation law came into force.
So why are we seeing a repeat of the Alms For Jihad debacle with this book on Putin and his cronies?
The new law should make it harder for foreign litigants to sue in London, and it should make them prove that they have suffered genuine damage. Without having seen the contents of the book (CUP say there is no reason to doubt the veracity of Dawisha’s claims about Putin’s circle, while simultaneously refusing to stand by their author), one would imagine that, particularly given US and European moves against Putin’s inner circle, the book would have had a decent chance in court.
But the new law will need to be tested. It may be that while the legal barrier to putting up a spirited defence of free speech in court has been considerably lowered, the mental block remains for many publishers. Only a strong early ruling under the new law will shake this off.
Lesley Kemp, a British freelance transcriber who faced a ruinous libel case after tweeting criticism of a Qatar-based client, is celebrating this week after the plaintiff dropped the case.
In October 2012 Milton Keynes-based Kemp tweeted criticism of Resolution Productions Limited, claiming the company had been late in paying an invoice for work carried out in September. The head of the company, Irish born Kirby Kearns, reacted strongly, bringing a £50,000 libel case against Kemp. The corporate film producer also sought to bring an action against Twitter.
But in a statement released yesterday, Kearns said he would drop the case, as he refused to pay security of £134,000 into the court, a common requirement for foreign-based claimants. He also cited personal reasons for not pursuing the case.
In his statement, Kearns rejected claims that he was a “libel tourist”, citing his family’s association with the UK. He said that the dropping of the case should not be seen as “some kind of victory” for any side.
Reacting on her blog today, Kemp expressed gratitude to science writer and libel campaigner Simon Singh, as well as the Libel Reform campaign (of which Index on Censorship is a member).
Kemp was represented by Robert Dougans of Bryan Cave, who also represented Singh in his battle with the British Chiropractic Association, and Jonathan Price* of Ely Place Chambers.
Dougans told Index: “We are glad that this case is over, but disappointed it was ever begun. I know how relieved Lesley is, and Jonathan Price and I are happy with a job well done, but we still do not know why Mr Kearns dropped the claim because of having to pay security for costs when he was always going to have to do so.”
This article was updated at 6pm, London time. It originally incorrectly stated that Jonathan Price is a QC.