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Canada11 March 2005

Libel suit against Washington Post could have major impact on free expression

Reporters Without Borders today wrote to the Canadian justice minister with its position on an important question of law for online media that has been raised by a former UN official’s libel action in Canada against the Washington Post, namely can a journalist whose article has been published on the Internet be sued anywhere it can be downloaded ? The Washington Post appealed on 8 March.

The text of the letter to justice minister Irwin Cotler follows:

"Reporters Without Borders would like to inform you of its position on a question of law that is currently being considered by a Canadian court in the libel case of Cheickh Bangoura v. Washington Post. We are concerned that this case will have important consequences for press freedom and online freedom of expression that will extend far beyond Canada’s borders. We moreover think it would be useful if the federal authorities were to adopt a public position on this issue, without thereby intervening in the court case.

"The question that the judge in this case must answer is the following: can a journalist whose article has been published on the Internet be sued anywhere it can be downloaded? Ruling that it can, as the Ontario court initially did, implies that any individual who posts something online could be sued over it in any country in the world. If upheld on appeal, this ruling could dissuade very many journalists from publishing their articles online.

"The Reporters Without Borders position on this question was clearly expressed during the preparatory meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society last month in Geneva. In our view, a country’s jurisdiction over online content in civil or criminal law applies exclusively to content hosted on its territory or content addressed specifically to its Internet users."

Background

An Ontario judge on 27 January 2004 agreed to hear a libel case brought against the US-based Washington Post daily newspaper by Cheickh Bangoura, a former UN official who was working in Kenya in 1997 when the newspaper reported allegations by UN colleagues that he was guilty of serious improprieties. Although many years have elapsed since the allegations were published, Bangoura brought his lawsuit in Canada, where he been living since 2000, on the grounds that the reports are still available online and can be read by Canadian Internet users.

The judge unexpectedly argued that the newspaper ""should have reasonably foreseen that the story would follow (Bangoura) wherever he resided" and that a newspaper editor "does not put an article on the Internet if he does not wish to reach a large audience." He added: "the more important the potential target, the more they [the editors] should take care."

With the support of some 50 major International news media and journalists’ organizations, the Washington Post filed an appeal against the court’s ruling on 8 March.



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