Aussie ruling on web libel to be challenged

Alpert: “it’s a threat to free speech”

A US reporter is to challenge last year’s Australian court ruling on internet defamation which allowed legal action against publishers to be taken in countries other than that where material was published.

William Alpert, a reporter for business and financial weekly Barron’s, has filed a plea with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva alleging Australia violated his right to free speech under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Alpert’s article for Barron’s in October 2000 resulted in the Australian ruling. His piece described the activities of, among others, Joseph Gutnick of Victoria, Australia. The article was then published on the website of The Wall Street Journal.

This led Gutnick to file an internet defamation suit against Dow Jones & Company, publisher of both Barron’s and the website. The case is due to be heard in the Supreme Court of Victoria in November. It follows a ruling in December 2002 by the Australian High Court which dismissed Dow Jones’ appeal that the action should be heard in the US, where the article was published, rather than Australia, where it could be downloaded.

Alpert said: “I am filing this action because I fear restrictions on the ability of financial journalists such as myself to report truthfully to US investors on the activities of foreigners who are actively engaged in the US markets. I even fear for our ability to report on US corporations and business people, who might see the High Court’s decision as an invitation to attack the US press in a remote forum.”

The impact of Australia’s law could harm journalists throughout the world, said Alpert, who claimed: “Powerful and sophisticated plaintiffs could search out overseas jurisdictions willing to help stifle news coverage that was only directed at local readers in those journalists’ home markets.

“I hope that the Human Rights Committee will recognise the threat to free speech and an informed public posed by Australian laws that allow suits against any journalist, anywhere that an article published on the internet can be downloaded. Perhaps the Australian Government of will recognise the need to modify its laws, even before the HRC takes up this case.”

Dow Jones is supporting Alpert in his case.

By Jean Morgan

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