An Important Story NOT Being Told: Libel Tourism

This past week I was contacted by Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld – Director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy.  Dr. Ehrenfeld extended me an invitation to an important event in Washington D.C. to celebrate the passage of the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act of 2010.  

The event featured U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Jeff Sessions, Congressman Steve Cohen and Peter King.  As well, First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, James Woolsey, Ruth Wedgwood, Judy Platt, and others came to speak on the important role the SPEECH Act will now have on American journalism.  

The SPEECH Act (Securing and Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitional Heritage) will protect American’s free-speech rights from the disturbing effect of foreign libel lawsuits.  The Act ensures that American courts cannot be used to enforce foreign libel suits against American journalists, publishers, bloggers, and authors.  

For years writers and journalists have been tried, imprisioned, and executed in countries with weaker speech protections.  Lawsuits are brought to courts within countries which do not have any substantial connection to the writer or publisher simply because …well… they don’t bear the same First Amendment privileges we have in the U.S.  This is called libel tourism.  

Imagine if you will, you are a blogger with a significant following.  You collect, say, a thousand unique vistors to your blog site each month.  You’re a current- events junkie who loves to comment on that nutjob Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.  You write a story about his growing dictatorship, his monkey-shaped head or any of the other 8 million reasons why Ahmadinejad sucks.  

Cut to several months later …

One of Ahmadinejad’s lackeys comes across your blog and doesn’t like what he sees (because he’s an idiot like Ahmadinejad himself).  He files a lawsuit for defamation.  You happen to be traveling in say, Britain (one of the many countries which does not provide protection against libel tourism).  You’re stopped for a minor traffic violation.  The next thing you know you’re having a background check by a police officer who now holds you for violation of courts in Iran.  You’re sent to Iran to face trail where you could be sentenced to life in prision or death (most likely the latter).  

If you’re an American writer, you now have protection.  

Dr. Ehrenfeld’s 2003 book, “Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop it” was the seed for the law to be created. Erhrenfeld was targeted by Saudi billionaire banker Khalid bin Mahfouz, whom she had “implicated in assisting terrorist financing.”  

Mahfouz sued her in a British court in 2005 for ‘besmirching his reputation’. Mahfouz was previously indicted for fraud related to his stake in the scandal-plagued Bank of Credit and Commerce International.  

Her book was not marketed internationally because Mahfouz targeted potential publishers and forced them to halt publication.  According to Ehrenfeld, “it became a weapon used to silence the media, especially when reporting about support for terrorist networks coming from wealthy Middle Eastern sources.”

Mahfouz ended up suing 45 publishers and journalists over their reporting on his terrorism ties.  All 45 of them caved. 

While I was attending the event, I couldn’t help but notice who wasn’t in attendence:  the media.  

I filmed the event myself and chatted with the only other blogger there (who wishes to remain annoynmous).  He mentioned, “this is barely being covered by anyone”.  He was right.  Besides a few independent news sources such as “The Hill” (a local website for current events in D.C.), the only other U.S. legacy media outlet to cover this event was The Washington Times.  

You would think this type of bill would have also generated a buzz from the Obama administration, who have been desperately searching for issues which Democrats and Republicans in Congress actaully agree on.  

Not so …

President Obama didn’t trumpet this as a bipartisan achievment at all.  There was no celebration or speech from Obama on this isssue.  According to The Washington Times, “President Obama has remained curiously silent”.

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