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ASIA: In a Globalised World, Media Need Sharper Legal Weapons

HONG KONG, May 3 2010 (IPS) - Newspapers threatened with lawsuits across borders. Journalists feeling lost as they seek redress in cases where the state is less than impartial in investigating the killings of journalists. Media caught in attempts to use religion to curtail room for public debate.

These are samples of the legal hurdles to press freedom in Asia that have emerged in recent years – and point to why media organisations need to sharpen their legal knowledge and tools in order to resist intrusions into their role as the Fourth Estate.

Indeed, news organisations are fast learning, sometimes the hard way, that they need to know not just domestic laws but international ones in the age of the Internet, which has broken down the old barriers between what was national and international publication of media material.

In a sign that nothing is purely domestic any more, the Kathmandu-based ‘Nepali Times’ newspaper found itself threatened with legal charges on defamation and copyright violation in Britain for a story, published in its online edition, on the resettlement of families of ex-Gurkha soldiers – or Nepalese fighters – who had been integral to the British Army.

“Our case proves libel tourism is alive and kicking and, as more and more content goes online, how anyone anywhere in the world is vulnerable to self- censorship due to libel threats in UK courts,” Dixit, publisher of the ‘Nepali Times’, told a recent media conference here organised by the Hawaii-based East-West Center and Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

Dixit says that plaintiffs often lodge libel suits in Britain as a deterrence against free speech because of its strict defamation laws and expensive legal fees.

Libel tourism s defined as the practice of “shopping for beneficial jurisdictions” by U.S. journalist Drew Sullivan in a report on silencing the press through transnational legal threats.

The British-based ‘Times Online’ newspaper called London “the libel capital of the world” after High Court records showed that it received 259 libel cases in 2008, the highest since 2004. It was unclear how many involved non- British and online publications.

While threats to media have gone transnational, the tools and options for coping with them are going beyond borders as well.

In ‘Nepali Times’ case, this has meant working with the London-based Media Legal Defence Initiative, which represents defendants in libel tourism cases in British courts as part of the legal aid it extends to media around the world.

In the case of the November 2009 massacre of 32 journalists in southern Philippines – who were among 58 people killed in an election-related incident – legal advocates brought in international legal expertise when they gathered evidence because powerful politicians and police were suspected of involvement in the crime.

In a case that made world headlines, the journalists and other locals were ambushed as they accompanied a politician in Maguindanao province on his way to file his candicacy for the May 10 national poll.

The main suspects included members of the powerful Ampatuan political clan, but the justice department dropped charges against two of them in April. Harry Roque Jr, director of the Centre for International Law in the Philippines and counsel for the kin of 12 victims, helped them protest the move.

Lawyers looked for international options to pursue an impartial inquiry, since public officials themselves have been linked with the murder.

“If the domestic legal system is not working, then we have to explore alternatives such as turning to international legal systems,” says Roque, who is linked with the South-east Asia Media Legal Defence Network (SEAMLDN), the first regional network of lawyers to defend free media in South-east Asia.

The victims’ kin hold the Philippine government accountable for the crime, but the law says the state “cannot be sued without its consent,” he explains.

Over in Malaysia, tough laws have been used in recent years to restrict the media space for debate by citing sensitive issues like religion, activists say.

In July 2007, ‘Malaysia Today’ editor and blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin was the subject of a police complaint under the Sedition Act that alleged he had insulted Islam and incited racial hatred in the mainly Muslim, multi-ethnic country.

In September 2008, he was detained under the Internal Security Act for reportedly having “insulted the king and incited racial hatred” on his blog. He was freed two months later after the court found his detention illegal.

“It is a media challenge, especially concerning defamation in religion, which is used as a basis to control freedom of expression,” says H R Dipendra, Malaysia-based coordinator of SEAMLDN.

In 2007, the government banned non-Muslim publications from using the word ‘Allah’. In January this year, Malaysian courts overturned this decision, saying that the word is “to exclusive to Islam”

Given media organisations’ need to fight new legal threats, Dipendra says that having regional and international networks is crucial. But he says this poses a challenge to the legal profession because, for instance, many lawyers in Malaysia prefer corporate over criminal and human rights work.

Still, Dipendra says: “I think the network (SEAMLDN) is the last strong defence versus tyranny.”

*The Asia Media Forum ( is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession, democracy, development and human rights in Asia. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

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