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Memorandum submitted by Drew Sullivan

 

 

I thank you for the opportunity to present comments on UK press standards and libel law to the committee. I felt compelled to comment because the issues you are discussing reach surprisingly far beyond your borders and greatly affect not only the UK media who have deep pockets but also non-governmental organizations and charitable organizations like us.

 

They have a very direct affect on two programs I work with: the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

 

CIN (www.cin.ba) is a leading regional non-profit center that provides investigative reports to local and regional media. It focuses on reporting on organized rime and corruption. CIN's goal is to educate the people of BiH about what is happening in their country and to give them the information they need to make good decisions. We are funded in part by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in this pursuit. CIN has won numerous local and international awards for its work including the 2007 Online Journalists Association's award for the best small investigate website worldwide. Its stories have led to an investigation of the current Federation of BiH prime minister, the removal of corrupt local and international judges, the jailing of a leading law enforcement official and many other important changes in BiH.

 

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (www.reportingproject.net) is a consortium of regional independent media, investigative centers and individual journalists founded by CIN and the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism (CRJI) dedicated to reporting on transnational organized crime. It seeks to combine the regional media expertise to cooperate and coordinate regional stories on organized crime and corruption. OCCRP's first project exposing criminality in regional energy trading won the Global Shining Light award for reporting under duress. It has also exposed tobacco smuggling networks and recently demonstrated the strong connections between organized crime and football.

 

Whether we like it or not, London has become the favorite haunt of organized crime figures. Your libel laws require your press to call them "controversial businessmen" or oligarchs, but make no mistake about it- many of them are old fashioned criminal thugs. They are men who have bribed, bullied, beaten and murdered their way to enormous wealth. They have robbed their country's banks and treasuries, plundered historic treasures, pillaged natural resources and stolen state companies. In their own countries, where the rule of law often does not exist, they have not only gotten away with their criminal actions, but they have beaten and murdered those that have sought to stop them. Prosecutors, journalists, NGO workers and union officials commonly face their brutal retaliations, which are often supported by government officials, private security firms and now, UK lawyers.

 

These crime figures and corrupt politicians bring their fortunes to the UK, where they attempt to legitimize their ill-gotten gains. In the UK they find that investment houses trip over each other courting them. Your hedge funds, real estate firms and investment banks launder their money. Your lobbyists represent them and now your lawyers are employed to launder their reputations and attack their enemies.

The UK courts have allowed the practice of libel tourism, where foreign parties can sue in your courts despite having only the vaguest, most tangential connection to the UK. This practice has been a boon to developing world crime figures who have sued developing world media and civil society organization in your courts. Given that the UK has some of the most draconian civil awards combined with some of the most media-unfriendly libel laws relative to the rest of the developed world, this is patently unfair.

 

In addition, UK lawyers are very expensive. For example, the cost of only a few hours of a UK lawyer's time will buy an organization such as ours a one year retainer for a lawyer in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We also find sources and witnesses to this corruption are often intimidated and therefore would not voluntarily give evidence in London.

 

This has made UK courts the darling of organized crime and the bane of civil society groups, non-profit media and charitable organizations around the world that seek to expose injustice.

 

This is not only a media issue. Civil society organizations in Western Europe, as well as in the developing world, are negatively affected by this situation. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, Green Peace and others conduct some of the most important investigations done today. With contacts worldwide and people on the ground, these organizations have exposed through their reports so much of the activities of corrupt governments and crime groups. Yet with each report they write, all are in danger of being dragged into a UK court for simply exposing the truth.

 

The problems CIN and its peers face are best demonstrated by a recent case where CIN wrote an important expose that showed how a leading Serbian oligarch had used questionable business practices to monopolize the local energy market. We reported, based on prosecution and auditor records, how this man had a pattern of getting state electrical companies to give him sweetheart deals that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and how he bought state electricity at below production costs only to sell it at handsome profits.

 

For our work, we were awarded an international investigative prize. However the claimant's UK law firm sent a series of threatening letters and we received direct threats from the businessman's staff. With the help of our UK lawyer, Mark Stephens, we were able to handle these threats. However, the UK law firm went one step further. Reminiscent of the despicable, underhanded practices of organized crime figures, the UK law firm contacted all of our donors. They made a series of inaccurate, slanderous statements attempting to damage our reputation.

 

CIN and OCCRP are supported by some of the most respected donors including the governments of the United States, UK and Sweden. They recognize the importance of educating the public on organized crime. These allegations could have led donors to defund us. The attacks were personal, unprofessional and libelous, but coming from a UK law firm, it forced donors to consider the charges. It cost us time and money as CIN was forced to justify its reporting rather than reporting on new issues. In the end, all of our donors supported our work largely because we have a proven track record and had taken pains before we ever received money to warn them of the types of attacks they could expect.

 

Another recent example further illustrates this point. A Ukrainian website with an annual budget of less than 60,000 was sued by a Ukrainian oligarch in the UK. The website, which claims to have never even heard of the suit, lost a summary judgment worth more than their annual operating budget. Even if they had been aware of the suit, they could neither have afforded a lawyer nor the costs of attending the case. The judge ruled that the UK was an appropriate jurisdiction, despite the fact that the suit involved a story written only in the Ukrainian language on a site with little or no UK visitors.

 

As more organized crime figures seek to legitimize their fortunes, this problem will only worsen. We are working hard to make journalists in the developing countries aware of the risk and to improve their standards, but this is a multi-decade effort. In the meantime, no NGO, media organization or civil society group in the developing world has the resources to survive a sustained attack in the UK court system.

 

Except for our organization, we know of no media organization or NGO that has libel and slander insurance to protect itself should it lose a judgment. We believe that even many respected international NGOs do not have the requisite insurance to protect themselves. Furthermore, all media and NGOs in the developing world are simply not insurable. Pitted against them are billionaire crime figures with the resources to harass these organizations worldwide with lawsuits.

 

UK courts should not be misused, and they should not be a tool that forces organizations to avoid printing the truth or journalists to self-censor, and that allows organized crime figures to harass the innocent.

 

There is a legitimate need to protect the public from unfair media. Much of the commercial media in the developing world are in fact owned by organized crime groups, political parties or oligarchs. But we must balance this need with the need to protect the vital civil society organizations that contribute so much.

Should you think it important, we would be happy to provide more information or to testify in front of the committee. We feel this is too important to our survival and we wish to miss no opportunity to change the status quo.

 

We stand by ready to help in this process any way we can.

 

Sincerely,

 

Drew Sullivan

 

January 2009