The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has adopted on July 4th a Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the Desirability of International Standards dealing with Forum Shopping in respect of Defamation, “Libel Tourism”, to Ensure Freedom of Expression.
1. The full respect for the right of all individuals to receive and impart information, ideas and opinions, without interference by public authorities and regardless of frontiers constitutes one of the fundamental principles upon which a democratic society is based. This is enshrined in the provisions of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”, ETS No. 5). Freedom of expression and information in the media is an essential requirement of democracy. Public participation in the democratic decision-making process requires the public to be well informed and to have the possibility of freely discussing different opinions.
2. Article 10 of the Convention also states that the right to freedom of expression “carries with it duties and responsibilities”. However, States may only limit the exercise of this right to protect the reputation or rights of others, as long as these limitations are “prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”. In this respect, in its reply to Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1814 (2007) “Towards decriminalisation of defamation”, adopted on 7 October 2009, the Committee of Ministers endorsed the Parliamentary Assembly’s views and called on member States to take a proactive approach in respect of defamation by examining domestic legislation against the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (“the Court”) and, where appropriate, aligning criminal, administrative and civil legislation with those standards. Furthermore, the Committee of Ministers recalled Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1589 (2003) on “Freedom of expression in the media in Europe”.
3. The European Commission of Human Rights and the Court have, in several cases, reaffirmed a number of principles that stem from paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 10. The media play an essential role in democratic societies, providing the public with information and acting as a watchdog,1 exposing wrongdoing and inspiring political debate, and therefore have specific rights. The media’s purpose is to impart information and ideas on all matters of public interest.2 Their impact and ability to put certain issues on the public agenda entails responsibilities and obligations. Among these is to respect the reputation and rights of others and their right to a private life. Furthermore, “subject to paragraph 2 of Article 10 (art. 10-2), [freedom of expression] is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”.3
4. In defamation cases, a fine balance must be struck between guaranteeing the fundamental right to freedom of expression and protecting a person’s honour and reputation. The proportionality of this balance is judged differently in different member States within the Council of Europe. This has led to substantial variations in the stringency of defamation law or case law, for example different degrees of attributed damages and procedural costs, varying definitions of first publication and the related statute of limitations or the reversal of the burden of proof in some jurisdictions. The Court has established case law in this respect: “In determining the length of any limitation period, the protection of the right to freedom of expression enjoyed by the press should be balanced against the rights of individuals to protect their reputations and, where necessary, to have access to a court in order to do so. It is, in principle, for Contracting States, in the exercise of their margin of appreciation, to set a limitation period which is appropriate and to provide for any cases in which an exception to the prescribed limitation period may be permitted”.4
Libel tourism and its risks
5. The existing differences between national defamation laws and the special jurisdiction rules in tort and criminal cases have given rise to the phenomenon known as “libel tourism”. Libel tourism is a form of “forum shopping” when a complainant files a complaint with the court thought most likely to provide a favourable judgment (including in default cases) and where it is easy to sue. In some cases a jurisdiction is chosen by a complainant because the legal fees of the applicant are contingent on the outcome (“no win, no fee”) and/or because the mere cost of the procedure could have a dissuasive effect on the defendant. The risk of forum shopping in cases of defamation has been exacerbated as a consequence of increased globalisation and the persistent accessibility of content and archives on the Internet.5
6. Anti-defamation laws can pursue legitimate aims when applied in line with the case law of the Court, including as far as criminal defamation is concerned. However, disproportionate application of these laws may have a chilling effect and restrict freedom of expression and information. The improper use of these laws affects all those who wish to avail themselves of the freedom of expression, especially journalists, other media professionals and academics. It can also have a detrimental effect, for example on the preservation of information, if content is withdrawn from the Internet due to threats of defamation procedures. In some cases libel tourism may be seen as the attempt to intimidate and silence critical or investigative media purely on the basis of the financial strength of the complainant (“inequality of arms”). In other cases the very existence of small media providers has been affected by the deliberate use of disproportionate damages by claimants through libel tourism. This shows that libel tourism can even have detrimental effects on media pluralism and diversity. Ultimately, the whole of society suffers the consequences of the pressure that may be placed on journalists and media service providers. The Court has developed a body of case law that advocates respect for the principle of proportionality in the use of fines payable in respect of damages and considers that a disproportionately large award constitutes a violation of Article 10 of the Convention.6 The Committee of Ministers also stated this in its Declaration on Freedom of Political Debate in the Media of 12 February 2004.7
7. Libel tourism is an issue of growing concern for Council of Europe member States as it challenges a number of essential rights protected by the Convention such as Article 10 (freedom of expression), Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life).
8. Given the wide variety of defamation standards, court practices, freedom of speech standards and a readiness of courts to accept jurisdiction in libel cases, it is often impossible to predict where a defamation/libel claim will be filed. This is especially true for web-based publications. Libel tourism thereby also demonstrates elements of unfairness. There is a general need for increased predictability of jurisdiction, especially for journalists, academics and the media.
9. The situation described in the previous paragraph has been criticised in many instances. Further, in a 2011 Joint Declaration, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on freedom of the media, the Organisation of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information in Africa stated that jurisdiction in legal cases relating to Internet content should be restricted to States to which those cases have a real and substantial connection.
10. Procedural costs may discourage defendants from presenting a defence thus leading to default judgments. Compensations may be considered disproportionate in the member State where the claim is being enforced due to the failure to strike an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and protection of the honour and reputation of persons.
Measures to prevent libel tourism
11. The prevention of libel tourism should be part of the reform of the legislation on libel/defamation in member States in order to ensure better protection of the freedom of expression and information within a system that strikes a balance between competing human rights.
12. With a view to further strengthening the freedom of expression and information in member States, an “inventory” of the Court’s case law in respect of defamation could be established with a view to suggesting new action if need be. Further, if there is a lack of clear rules as to the applicable law and indicators for the determination of the personal and subject matter jurisdiction, such rules should be created to enhance legal predictability and certainty, in line with the requirements set out in the case law of the Court. Finally, clear rules as to the proportionality of damages in defamation cases are highly desirable.
13. Against this background, the Committee of Ministers:
- alerts member States to the fact that libel tourism constitutes a serious threat to the freedom of expression and information;
- acknowledges the necessity to provide appropriate legal guarantees against awards for damages and interest that are disproportionate to the actual injury, and to align national law provisions with the case law of the Court;
- undertakes to pursue further standard-setting work with a view to providing guidance to member States.
1 Goodwin v. United Kingdom, European Court of Human Rights, 27 March 1996, paragraph 39.
2 De Haes and Gijsels v. Belgium, European Court of Human Rights, 24 February 1997, paragraph 37.
3 Handyside v. United Kingdom, European Court of Human Rights, 7 December 1976, paragraph 49.
4 Times Newspapers Ltd. (Nos. 1 and 2) v. United Kingdom, European Court of Human Rights, 10 March 2009, paragraph 46.
5 Times Newspapers Ltd. (Nos. 1 and 2) v. United Kingdom, European Court of Human Rights, paragraph 45.
6 Tolstoy Miloslavsky v. United Kingdom, European Court of Human Rights, 13 July 1995, paragraph 51.
7 “Damages and fines for defamation or insult must bear a reasonable relationship of proportionality to the violation of the rights or reputation of others, taking into consideration any possible effective and adequate voluntary remedies that have been granted by the media and accepted by the persons concerned.”