Campaign’s success in UK: Libel reform announced
English PEN, Article 19 and Index on Censorship welcome the Government’s announcement that it will bring a Defamation Bill before Parliament. This is a major milestone in Libel Reform Campaign to widen the space for free expression in the UK and around the world.
Sunday, 13 May 2012, by HRH London, based on English PEN, Article 19 and Index on Censorship press releases.
The Queen’s Speech, in which the Her Majesty reads the government’s legislative agenda for the next parliamentary period in front of both Houses of Parliament, was delivered on 9 May this year and included a long-awaited Defamation Bill, as well as a Crimes and Courts Bill, a Justice and Security Bill and a Communication Bill.
For the past two and a half years, English PEN, Article 19 and Index on Censorship have been campaigning alongside many other organisations and a coalition of over 60 NGOs, consumer groups and professional bodies, to demand the reform of our antiquated libel laws. Nearly 60,000 members of the public have backed their calls for change, and there is a cross-political consensus of the need for reform.
This will be the first wholesale attempt at reform since 1843 and an amazing achievement for the campaign and its 60,000 supporters.
The bill will open the way to ending libel tourism and protecting free expression for journalists, writers, bloggers and scientists around the world. The bill will make it more difficult for dubious defamation and libel suits to go forward and to succeed. Under the proposed legislation, applicants will have to prove that they have sustained serious harm: currently, it is enough just to demonstrate the potential for substantial harm.
The UK’s government published its draft Defamation Bill in March 2011, followed by its response to the Scrutiny Committee report on the draft Bill in February 2012. In Index on Censorship estimation, both bills fell short of what was needed.
The Government’s Draft Bill, and its response to the public consultation, suggest that some measures in the Bill may not be adequate to truly reform this unjust law.
– a public interest defence so people can defend themselves unless the claimant can show they have been malicious or reckless. This means the public will have greater freedom of expression (watch campaign’s video on the public interest);
– a strong test of harm that strikes out claims unless the claimant can demonstrate serious and substantial harm and they have a real prospect of vindication. This means that those who prove that they have sustained harm will receive adequate protection and compensation (video);
– a restriction on corporations’ ability to use the libel laws to silence criticism. This means the media will be able to operate more efficiently and with more scrutiny on issues in the public interest (video);
– provisions for online hosts and intermediaries, who are not authors nor traditional publishers. This means that the website operators will receive better protections for content created by their users and other third parties. Their inclusion is an important step towards taking the changing media landscape into account (video).
Campaign's success. Further support needed
The organisers are very grateful to all the supporters who have taken part in campaign actions on this issue. They ask to continue with their help.
The Defamation Bill will be debated and amended in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords before it becomes law. The campaign organisers say they will need to rely on all those who value free expression to keep this issue alive in the minds of British MPs and Peers.
The text of the Defamation Bill 2012-13 has been published on the official Parliament website.
Other bills may restrict free speech in UK
However, the Article 19 is concerned that a number of other bills – a Crimes and Courts Bill, a Justice and Security Bill, a Communication Bill – will unduly restrict freedom of expression in the UK. The organisation estimates that these bills have the potential to interfere with the rights to freedom of expression, information and privacy.
Crimes and Courts Bill
Article 19 calls for this bill to be carefully reviewed. It proposes allowing TV cameras into the courtroom under certain circumstances in order to increase transparency in the judicial system.
It will be crucial to ensure that the ways of deciding which proceedings can be filmed and broadcast balance carefully the need to protect witnesses and fair trials against open justice principles.
The Bill also proposes the creation of a National Crime Agency (NCA). Articcle 19 recommends that:
– the NCA should be transparent and subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000;
– any exemptions from the FOIA should be fully justifiable through an independent process. Currently, the Serious Organised Crime Agency has been exempted from FOIA, but the NCA has a wider remit covering many traditional policing agencies.
Article 19 welcomes the reform of the selection process of judges and the overhaul of processes within reform courts and tribunals. These changes aim at greater efficiency, diversity and transparency; a greater understanding of the judicial processes.
According to Article 19, these changes should be implemented throughout the UK.
Justice and Security Bill
Under this bill, courts will be given extended powers to hold closed proceedings when considering sensitive information related to national security. This evidence will be shared only with the government, the judge, the security agencies and a state-appointed special advocate.
Article19 is concerned that:
– the use of these closed proceedings undermines defendants’ right to a fair trial;
– the proceedings pose a serious threat to open justice;
– the processes for deciding if information could be deemed sensitive are poorly defined;
– there is a likelihood of closed proceedings being used to shield the government from public scrutiny.
Such closed legal proceedings, in the organisation’s opinion, constitute a serious interference with the public’s right to freedom of information and undermine the principles of open justice and fair trials.
Article 19 considers this piece of legislation to be highly problematic because it orders all Communications Service Providers (including Internet Service Providers and mobile phone operators) to save and store for one year details of all communications made by all persons in the UK.
Article 19 says that although communications surveillance has a role to play in combating crime, it should only be used with a court warrant or/and when strictly necessary. The London-based NGO is concerned that the stockpiling of information from every person in the UK without any suspicion constitutes an invasion of privacy which is neither proportionate nor necessary.
This proposal is more reminiscent of an authoritarian government that rejects human rights than a democracy that is subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. In Article 19 opinion, the proposal will substantially affect the right to free expression, as it discourages people from visiting controversial sites and makes it possible to identity confidential sources of journalists.
Article 19 also states that the proposed safeguards do not justify the initial surveillance and stockpiling of data, particularly as data security is poor among police agencies and private companies such as mobile phone operators, as the current Leveson Inquiry has revealed.
Article 19 therefore calls on the government and parliament to reject this bill, as was done in the last Parliament.
HRH London, based on English PEN, Article 19 and Index on Censorship press releases.