British Libel Actions Target Terrorism Books

By CQ WEEKLY – VANTAGE POINT | by Charles Hoskinson, CQ Staff
Monday, October 8th, 2007 @ 6:05PM

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Influential residents of repressive regimes in the Middle East can use a wide range of official measures to counter criticism and suppress dissent. Now, a trio of Western authors contend that one such controversial figure — billionaire Saudi financier Khalid bin Mahfouz — has hit upon a novel extension of such strategies, using Britain’s plaintiff-friendly libel law to cancel the publication of two books alleging that he has helped fund terrorists. Bin Mahfouz has long disputed that he has had any role in funding Islamic terrorist groups. Both of the books he challenged seek to link funds from the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia, which he founded, and the Muwafaq charitable foundation, where he is principal donor, to al Qaeda. Bin Mahfouz first won a $225,000 judgment in 2005 in a libel action against Rachel Ehrenfeld, a U.S. citizen who directs the American Center for Democracy and the author of “Funding Evil.” Her publisher, Bonus Books, can no longer market the title in Britain. Another pair of American writers, J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, saw their book on the same subject, “Alms for Jihad,” pulped outright by their British publisher, Cambridge University Press, after bin Mahfouz threatened to sue the company. British libel law doesn’t require proof, as U.S. law does, that a defendant acted out of “actual malice” and “reckless disregard” for the truth of a published claim. Rather, it hinges on the rebuttable presumption that a defamatory statement is false — sparking a libel-plaintiffs rush into British courts known as “libel tourism.” The three American authors targeted by bin Mahfouz all say they stand by their work and deny any basis for a libel claim against them. But the broader worry is that judgments like these will intimidate authors from grappling with controversial subjects such as the international funding of terrorism. Bin Mahfouz won his British suit against Ehrenfeld after she elected not to contest it in British court. Instead, she has asked the New York Court of Appeals to assert jurisdiction over the case and protect her from the British court’s action, after a federal court agreed the state court could consider the case. Her appeal is backed by a coalition of media groups, including the Association of American Publishers (which counts CQ among its members) and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, along with online retailer Arguments in the case are scheduled to begin Nov. 15. Source: CQ Weekly The definitive source for news about Congress. ᄅ 2007 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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