Importing British Libel Law; N.Y. State Court Asked to Enforce U.K. Libel Verdict against N.Y. Weekly; Media Resist

By Garneau, George | Editor & Publisher, January 25, 1992 | Go to article overview

Importing British Libel Law; N.Y. State Court Asked to Enforce U.K. Libel Verdict against N.Y. Weekly; Media Resist


Garneau, George, Editor & Publisher


U.S. media companies are taking sides against an Indian political figure who is asking a New York state court to enforce the $65,000 libel verdict he won in England against India Abroad, a New York weekly for expatriate Asian Indians.

American media fear a disturbing precedent if the politician wins: By suing in England, where libel verdicts against the media are easy, plaintiffs will do an end run around U.S. libel laws and force U.S. courts to penalize speech protected by the First Amendment.

Under such a scenario, U.S. publishers or broadcasters whose work is distributed in other countries could be sued under local libel laws, no matter how restrictive. Then, with court judgments in hand, plaintiffs could demand U.S. courts to order CBS or the New York Times to pay up.

U.S. state courts often uphold foriegn court judgments against U.S.-based companies, with some exceptions.

India Abroad is one of those exceptions, according to a group of U.S. media companies supporting the paper.

"Enforcement of a judgment obtained in the U.K. is repugnant to U.S. and New York law, particularly constitutional law," said Deborah R. Linfield, a New York Times attorney who is representing the group in a friend-of-the-court brief.

If the plaintiff wins, she argues, U.S. publishers and broadcasters would have to censor themselves to conform to the most restrictive defamation laws wherever their products are distributed. She said the India Abroad article was clearly protected speech under U.S. libel standards, since it reported the publication of credible allegations against a public figure.

The brief on behalf of the Times, Time Warner, Newsweek, NBC, Associated Press, News America Publishing Inc., Magazine Publishers of America, and other publishers says that the India Abroad case represents a new strategy by plaintiffs seeking to stifle media scrutiny.

"While none has been successful to date, there is a small but disturbing and growing trend among libel plaintiffs to bring suit extraterritorially in order to avoid the requirement, of proving fault, under either a negligence or |actual malice' test which would be imposed by an American court," Linfield said in a letter to Judge Shirley Fingerhood of Supreme Court of the state of New York.

Among a handful of similar cases facing U.S. media companies, the Times is being threatened with suits in India for its reporting about the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and in Uganda, where it distributes one paper a day, Linfield said. The strategy of suing extraterritorially also was used by Robert Maxwell, the late British publisher who sued in England over a book by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.

Founded in 1970, India Abroad is a 41,000-circulation, English-language weekly circulating mainly in the United States. Subsidiaries distribute it in Canada and the United Kingdom. U.K. circulation is about 800. It employs 50 people in New York and maintains correspondents in India and elsewhere. It also operates a wire service that shares news with India's National Press Agency.

The case stems from India Abroad's reporting on one of India's biggest scandals in years: Swedish arms manufacturer AB Bofor paid government officials millions of dollars in bribes and illegal commissions in an effort to get contracts. The story has made headlines in hundreds of newspaper and television accounts since 1987.

In January 1990, the prominent Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter reported that the Swiss government froze bank accounts allegedly used to transfer funds. Quoting an unnamed source familiar with the Indian government investigation, Dagens Nyheter said the man behind one account was Ajitabh Bachchan, a friend and ally of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and brother of Amitabh Bachchan, a movie star and former member of Parliament.

Press Trust of India, one of that nation's leading news agencies, carried the Dagens Nyheter story, along with most major papers in India, India Abroad and its news service. …

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