Media firms fear impact of Internet libel claim
Last Update: Wednesday, March 9, 2005. 11:08am (AEDT)
The Washington Post, backed by 50 global media giants, has challenged a landmark Internet libel claim lodged in Canadian courts, which critics fear could squelch freedom of expression in cyberspace.
The appeal seeks to overturn a previous ruling that Canada has jurisdiction to hear a $9 million damages claim lodged against the US-based paper by a former United Nations official now living in Ontario.
Media firms, including CNN, The New York Times, the London Times newspaper and Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, argue that if the case proceeds, it could force them to block access to their websites in some nations.
Such a move would undermine the very rationale of the World Wide Web and be a detriment to global freedom of expression, the firms said.
It also raises the spectre of limitless liability for newspapers with websites, read by millions of readers around the world.
Former UN official Cheickh Bangoura is suing the Post over articles in 1997 mentioning allegations of sexual and financial wrongdoing against him while he was working in Africa.
Published where it’s read
His case largely rides on the fact that the articles can still be read online in Canada, and suggests a precedent that material posted on a website should be considered as published in the nation where it is read.
Tuesday’s case in the Ontario Court of Appeals challenges a previous ruling by a lower court that the paper should have considered the allegations would impact the official’s life, wherever he subsequently chose to live.
The Post argues the case has no connection with Ontario, despite the fact that the official now lives in the province.
Bangoura was living in Kenya when the alleged libels occurred.
“The extraordinary nature of the ruling presents real dangers to the continued development of the Internet and global communications,” the coalition of media firms argued in a submission to the court in support of the Post.
Lawyers for the Post argue that Canadian courts do not have jurisdiction as Bangoura did not even move to Canada until after the stories were published, and did not take up residence in Ontario until 2000.
They proposed Washington as the proper venue for such a claim. Incidentally, US libel laws are more favourable to media organisations owing to freedom of speech provisions enshrined in the US Constitution.
But Bangoura’s lawyers responded that since the damage to his reputation was most pronounced, and was continuing, in Ontario, where he now lives, he should be entitled to redress in the province’s courts.
In a point of key interest to the world’s top media firms, they warned that newspapers should be aware of potential legal ramifications in foreign countries from posting material on the Internet.
Three judges, led by Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, reserved judgment on the case until a later date.
In a similar case in 2002, the Australian High Court ruled that Victorian businessman Joseph Gutnick had the right sue an Internet publisher based in the United States in a Victorian court.
The High Court dismissed the arguments from a long list of major media companies that defamation action could only apply in the country or city where the Internet article was published.
Mr Gutnick resolved the defamation battle against US publisher Dow Jones last year.
The publisher retracted its original report and Mr Gutnick was awarded $180,000 in settlement of the case, with a further $400,000 in costs.