EU nations won't back libel limits

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BRUSSELS -- European Union governments have thrown out plans to restrict "libel shopping," the practice of suing broadcasters and journalists in countries with the harshest laws.

EU government officials announced Wednesday that they are unable to back proposals drafted by the European Parliament that would have ensured broadcasters and journalists accused of libel could be sued only in the country of their media's main audience.

The decision comes after four years of EU negotiations on civil liability aimed at simplifying cross-border litigation cases that involve multiple courts.

The Parliament plans ran into heavy fire from national governments amid fears that new rules could affect free speech and make libel shopping easier. They also were challenged by the European Commission -- the EU's executive authority -- which said that a libeled individual should only seek redress in his or her country of residency.

British Liberal Democrat Euro-MP Diana Wallis, who drafted the Parliament proposal, said the move would extend the confusion about libel in Europe. "It will mean we will have to continue muddling through," she said.

Wallis blamed pressure from the press and media lobbyists -- particularly in Britain -- for the governments' refusal to back the plans. Even though her proposals would have limited the scope for libel victims to sue, she said the British press did not want to be restricted by the strict privacy laws that France and other countries apply. "I would have thought our proposals would have created more certainty, but they wanted to be excluded," she said.

Wallis warned that with so many articles being published on the Internet, thousands of ordinary people could now find themselves facing legal challenges. "This has to be dealt with sometime soon," she said. "With the Internet, there is a much wider world, and many more cross-border cases to deal with."
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