British libel law is called that, you'd think, because it applies in Britain. When it comes to libel, the UK is about the most plaintiff-friendly country in the world. British citizens enjoy no freedom to write, to speak, let alone to publish. It's a free-speech free zone. US citizens escaped all that when they hammered out the First Amendment, right? It may be time to think again.
Last Tuesday, a Canadian firm managed to use British law to shut down part of a US-based website. The case, which pitted Barrick Gold and Goldstrike Mines against Guardian Newspapers UK, had to to do with "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," a November 26, 2000 column by Greg Palast which appeared in the Guardian's Sunday publication, the Observer. In it, Palast looked at the links between several corporations and the Bush family. It was here that he first revealed that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris had contracted with a Republican-friendly data-collection company to tag over 50,000 voters (overwhelmingly African-American) as felons so that they might illegally be excised from the voting roles.
Officially at least, that's not what got Palast in trouble. What Barrick took issue with was Palast's reporting on the company's incestuous relationship with the Bush family and the allegations, backed by local witnesses and human rights investigators, that the gold ore Barrick profits from in Tanzania was freed up for exploitation thanks to the forced eviction of indigenous miners, at a cost of some 50 miners' lives.
Barrick denies culpability in the murders (they did not own the subsidiary at the time of the alleged massacre.) The Tanzanian government has forbidden a formal investigation, styming Amnesty International's attempts to get out the truth. Suing in British court, Barrick charged that the article had caused the company and its chair, Peter Munk, "great embarassment and distress" and that their reputations were "extremely seriously damaged." What may have been at the heart of their panic was the possibility of trouble from the World Bank which has given them loans in Tanzania and elsewhere. Bank regulations forbid lending to projects tained by armed violence at any point.
In the United States, plaintiffs in libel cases have to show not only that a story is false, but prove that it was published with the knowledge that it was false. In the UK, the person who brings the suit doesn't have to prove anything and defendants bear the burden of proving their facts without re-using any of the evidence that's in dispute.
Barrick, the world's most valuable gold-mining company, demanded monetary damages and an injunction to prevent further dissemination of the article by the Guardian, "its directors, employees, agents or otherwise..." On July 31, the Guardian, which is run by a non-for-profit trust, settled in London's High Court, offering "sincere apologies," "a substantial sum" in damages and an agreement that it would delete the article from its electronic archives.
Palast was left with the choice of removing "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" from his own, privately-maintained US site, or keeping it there at the risk of exposing the Guardian to aggravated damages.
"I am not at war with Barrick, I just would like the truth to come out. But I can't risk my paper's treasury with US publication," Palast told CBS.MarketWatch.com (Aug 1, 2001) Thus archaeic British libel laws, wielded by a massively wealthy corporation were able to edit a 21st century, US-based website. Palast has essentially been forced to delete all references to Barrick from his story online.
Palast's original report remains in some places -- including www.onlinejournal.com. If Barrick wants to get it pulled off those sites, it will have to bring suit in US courts. But the case reminds one how delicate the First Amendment is. Free speech is free only for those who can effectively fight their censors. It is time for a new revolution? At www.gregpalast.com, you can read Palast's columns and see his BBC report, "Theft of the Presidency." Do it quick, and download, so Bush's pals will have to take on all of us.