Whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has made it their trade to host content censored online. While this brings to mind China or Myanmar, their most challenging threats have come from the West — in this case, they’ve posted a series of stories quietly scrubbed from the archives of British papers by a hyperactive British libel law.
The stories in question detail the business dealings of Nadhami Auchi, a British-Iraqi billionaire with business and political ties worldwide, including contacts with Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and a US$3.5 million loan from Auchi’s company, General Mediterranean Holding, to Tony Rezko, shortly before Rezko was convicted of 16 counts of corruption and bribery.
Recently, Auchi has taken aim at a mixed bag of British media outlets via libel suits; Auchi was convicted of corruption by a French court in 2003, and has sued papers that fail to mention he is contesting the verdict in the European Court of Human Rights. Media largely stopped reporting on Auchi shortly after the suits began.
Wikileaks argues that the cases are won simply by wearing down media outlets and taking maximum advantage of an archaic British libel system that puts the burden of proof on the defendant, not the plaintiffs. Now, a group of British MPs is calling for a reform of the libel law to eliminate “libel tourism”.
In an emailed editorial (update: full text online here), Wikileaks staff writes:
“In the past few years Carter Ruck, Shillings and others London firms have made millions hawking the UK libel system to the world’s litigious hyper-rich. According to Ruck:
“[in the UK] A libel claimant does not have to prove that the words are false or to prove that he has suffered any loss. Damage is presumed… The onus is on the defendant to prove that the allegations are true.”
In other words, cashed-up billionaires can force a win, regardless of the merits, by strategically prolonging litigation. When publishers run out of resources to fund ongoing court costs, they instantly lose as a result of the reversed burden of proof.
But it gets better. A losing publisher not only suffers their own legal costs–they must pay the plaintiff’s costs as well. These costs can run into millions of pounds and are frequently tens or hundreds of times the damages.
This medieval system, which evolved to protect landed Earls, Barons and other home-grown oligarchs from public accountability, is now responsible for the suppression of investigative writers and publishers the world over.
Sensitive billionaire’s, from Kazakhstan to the Congo, have lined up to gut constitutional protections in the United States and elsewhere by suing in the UK.”
You can also read our earlier (award winning) coverage of Wikileaks battles to fight off legal attack in the United States courts.
— Jonathan Eyler-Werve