Libel suits can be filed only on home turf


BRUSSELS -- Euro-MPs have voted to ensure that journalists and broadcasters accused of libel can only be sued in the country where their outlet's main audience is -- cutting the practice of "libel shopping," in which defamation suits are filed in the legal system with the harshest laws.

The European Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee backed the report by British Liberal Democrat Diana Wallis, which said that if it was not clear where the main target audience was -- for example, with Internet publications -- the law of "the country in which editorial control is exercised" should apply.

They said that "the language of the publication or broadcast" and the "sales or audience size in a given country" should be taken into account when determining the principle audience.

Wallis said that, with so many articles being published on the Internet, she is concerned that thousands of ordinary people will find themselves facing legal challenges.

The European Commission -- the EU's executive body -- originally sought a formula under which the law of the country where the damage occurs would apply. But Wallis said that it could return to the agenda by 2010 in spite of the vote by Euro-MPs. "This is an area of great concern," Wallis said. "Clearly, this issue will continue to haunt us."

The European Publishers Council also warned that EU national governments might try to push for a "country of choice" system.

"We fear that this will jeopardize press freedoms," EPC Director Angela Mills Wade said. "What matters to us above all is legal certainty and the protection from the possibility that every time we go to print we may be coming up against the laws or regulations of any one of the 25 EU member states. The media cannot be subject to the liability and sanctions of 25 different legal systems just in case their articles are accessed outside the country or countries of their principle audiences or readers."