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Australia 11 December 2002

High Court’s decision jeopardises freedom of expression on the Internet

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) today voiced deep concern about the Australian high court’s ruling yesterday that online publishers can be sued for libel in the countries where they are read and where the plaintiff’s reputation is at risk, rather than in the countries where the publication originates. The decision was taken in connection with Australian mining businessman Joseph Gutnick’s libel suit over an article published online in August 2000 by the US magazine Barron’s, owned by the Dow Jones news group.

This ruling could have implications for freedom of expression on the Internet all over the world, Reporters Without Borders said. It sets a dangerous legal precedent that exposes online media to prosecution anywhere in the world where the Internet is present and a lawsuit can be filed for libel. As the legislation governing libel varies from one country to another, there is a crucial difference between the place where a text appears and the place where its website is hosted.

"Our organisation believes that lawsuits against online media must be handled by the courts in the country where the website is hosted," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said. "This is the only solution to avoid judicial harassment of the press and self-censorship of political, social and economic news published on websites."

The Australian high court’s seven judges yesterday unanimously rejected an appeal by Dow Jones for the case to be heard in the United States, where Barron’s is based, rather than in Australia, where the plaintiff lives. Without taking a position as to whether or not there was libel, the high court thereby gave Gutnick the go-ahead to pursue his case in the state of Victoria.

The supreme court in the state of Victoria had already found in Gutnick’s favour, ruling that it had jurisdiction over the case because the Barron’s article could be downloaded there. It was this decision that led Dow Jones to file its appeal to the high court, with the support of eight major international news media including Yahoo!, CNN, Reuters and The Guardian.

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