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.
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.
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.
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
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.