In special coverage in December, we referred to Belarus as not quite a dictatorship and not quite a democracy. But if what’s happening in Minsk now isn’t dictatorship, I don’t know what is. Added to the raids and interrogations taking place across the country, and the imprisonment of opposition figures and dissenters, is the chilling attention that the state is paying to the son of Andrei Sannikov, a presidential candidate, and his wife, Irina Khalip, a journalist. Both are in jail, and their 3-year-old son is in the care of Khalip’s mother. According to a New York Times article, child welfare workers have said they will determine if the grandmother is fit to care for the boy. If not, he could go into government custody.

Over in Ukraine, we’ve written about the increasing pressure on the media, so it’s not terribly surprising to learn that a magnate who controls part of the country’s natural gas trade has filed a libel suit against the Kyiv Post for an article that includes allegations of corruption. It’s a bit surprising, though, that the suit was filed not in Ukraine but in the United Kingdom.

Readers in Britain who go to the newspaper’s website are greeted with the following message:

“The Kyiv Post, effective Dec. 14, 2010, is blocking access to all web traffic originating from the United Kingdom in protest of the draconian libel laws there that hinder legitimate free speech and threaten the work of independent journalists, authors, scientists and others worldwide. In a phenomenon known as ‘libel tourism,’ rich and powerful plaintiffs file lawsuits in London – ‘the libel capital of the world’ – to exploit laws stacked in their favor, stifling journalism and threatening news organizations and others with costly lawsuits.”

In a 16 December editorial the Post explained the issue:

“The libel allegations against the Kyiv Post were brought by RosUkrEnergo co-owner Dmytro Firtash, [whose picture appears with this post] who objected to a July 2 article headlined Gas trade leaves trail of lawsuits, corruption.

“The story – and Firtash’s legal complaint – can be found here.

“The article in question was a spot news story over the disputed 11 billion cubic meters of gas that ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, when in power, seized from RosUkrEnergo following a Jan. 19, 2009, deal with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to end the protracted standoff that year.

“Firtash challenged the confiscation, won an international arbitration court ruling and eventually won the gas back for RosUkrEnergo, which he co-owns with Russia’s Gazprom.

“The article contained allegations made at a press conference … by a public figure (Tymoshenko) against another public figure (Firtash) involving a public issue (the gas trade). If a newspaper cannot report about such events, then Ukraine has no democracy or free press.”

Britain’s libel laws are notoriously weighted in favor of the plaintiff, available to be used by those with a reputation to protect in the United Kingdom. The law’s broad wording and court rulings have made for bizarre and dangerous situations: a foreign author need sell only one copy of a book in the UK that a deep-pocketed plaintiff claims to damage his or her reputation and that author can look forward to costly legal proceedings. It’s not difficult to imagine what that means for those who post information on the Internet.

The Post article was too loaded for my liking – it describes Tymoshenko as having “fire in her eyes” as she talked about the alleged corruption in the gas trade and its second paragraph uses language I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole unless I had the proof sitting next to me: “Recent events in the sector have proven that, if you want to take control of a couple billion dollars worth of natural gas from the Ukrainian government, having friends or partners in the energy ministry, media and law enforcement is enough to seal the deal.” (italics mine)

But the paper says it tried to reach Firtash, who has declined requests for interviews or to correct any inaccuracies in the Tymoshenko story.

As this unfolds, Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is preparing a package of changes to the libel laws that will raise the bar for someone wanting to bring a case there. The changes also would strengthen protection for those deemed to be speaking out in the public interest.

It’s the height of irony that Western governments can tie themselves in knots over how to deal with their Eastern neighbors when they slide further into authoritarianism and censorship – engagement or sanctions, carrot or stick? — while the UK’s libel laws hand the autocrats and oligarchs yet another truncheon.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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