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February 25, 2011

Libel tourism bid in UK against Ukrainian newspaper fails

By PA Media Lawyer

An attempt by a billionaire Ukrainian businessman to sue a Ukrainian newspaper in the High Court in London was rejected by a judge yesterday.

High Court Master John Leslie dismissed the case brought against the Kyiv Post by businessman Dimitry Firtash, saying that the link to the English jurisdiction was “tenuous in the extreme”.

Firtash had sought to sue the newspaper over an article it published about his gas company, RosUkrEergo AG, which he says suggests corruption.

He wanted to bring the case in London even though the Kyiv Post article was thought to have been downloaded from the internet by only 21 people in the United Kingdom.

Dismissing the case, Leslie said: “There is no substantial connection to this jurisdiction.”

Solicitor Mark Stephens, who represented the newspaper, said: “This is one of the worst cases of libel tourism I’ve encountered in recent years.

“This is a dispute between a Ukrainian oligarch and a Ukrainian paper about matters in the Ukraine.

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‘It has no connection with the UK and the learned Master Leslie quite rightly threw the case out.

“Forum shopping libel cases have become the scourge of the British legal system.

‘In the United States they have even had to pass legislation to protect their citizens and publishers from this abuse.”

Firtash’s attempt to bring the libel case in London provoked the Kyiv Post to block access to its website from the UK in protest at what it called Britain’s “draconian libel laws” and for fear of attempts to bring other cases in the English jurisdiction.

The Bloomberg news service quoted the Kyiv Post’s editor, Brian Bonner, as having said three days ago that the newspaper was ready to settle the case, and adding: “We’re a Ukrainian newspaper and he’s a Ukrainian businessman and 30 people downloaded this in the UK.

“If we lose, estimates are this could cost $1.5m in fees, which is a huge price for an independent paper sold two years ago for $1.1m.”

Leslie’s decision was welcomed by the Libel Reform Campaign, which has been saying for some time that wealthy claimants were using the High Court in London to stifle criticism of their behaviour overseas.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has committed to bringing forward legislation to reform England’s archaic libel laws and end “libel tourism” by May 2012, after successful lobbying by the Libel Reform Campaign, with 55,000 people signing an online petition.

Mike Harris of Index on Censorship said: “A Ukrainian billionaire tried to drag a Ukrainian newspaper all the way to London to fight a libel case here.

“Master Leslie has rightly thrown this case out.

“We can’t have our courts used to chill free speech in foreign countries. But it’s up to the government to bring our libel laws in the 21st century with reform in this Parliament.”

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