Kicking the Libel Crutch
by Stephen Schwartz
ENGLISH LIBEL LAW, long a torment for journalists, has changed dramatically, with particularly significant consequences for the investigation of the powerful Saudi subjects who allegedly financed al Qaeda.
On October 10, the Law Lords, the English equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, found that publication of contested facts and statements about public figures is legal, so long as reportage is done responsibly and serves the public interest.
The ruling represents a major break with Crown precedent, which almost uniformly supported the claims of libel plaintiffs against journalists. The disparity between England, which protected reputations, and the United States, which sought to guarantee journalistic freedom, led some who claimed to have been libeled to believe they could get a more sympathetic hearing in England.
A rush to file libel suits in England was especially noticeable in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Many of the plaintiffs were prominent Saudis, to whom financing of extremist activities on behalf of Wahhabism was easily traced by journalists, private investigators, and public agencies. In 2002, for instance, the Wall Street Journal reported that a network of rich Saudis had come under surveillance for possible misuse by terrorists.
The objects of interest included the al-Rajhi family, with a notable record in supporting Wahhabi ideology abroad; Sheikh Saleh Kamel, owner of the Dallah al-Baraka conglomerate; the bin Mahfouz commercial interests; property developer and financier Yasin al-Kadi, and the Abdul Latif Jameel business network. Khalid bin Mahfouz and others responded to the charges by threatening an array of lawsuits (including one against my book The Two Faces of Islam). Al-Rajhi Banking & Investment wasted millions in litigation against the Wall Street Journal, gaining no more than the right to a letter to the editor disclaiming any involvement with terror. But Muhammad Abdul Latif Jameel won a case against the Journal in the lower British courts.
Some of the most prominent Saudis in this group were originally identified in a document listing a "Golden Chain" of al Qaeda financiers, which was seized in Sarajevo by Bosnian government investigators in 2002. As has been repeated many times since September 11, 2001, all these Saudi suspects continue to enjoy impunity inside the kingdom, although Yasin al-Kadi's substantial assets in the Balkans were seized by local authorities.
Last week, the Law Lords found against Jameel and for the Wall Street Journal. One may expect that English journalists will celebrate the achievement of an expanded freedom to investigate and publish uncomforting facts about powerful interests--the Saudis' and others--without fearing the de facto censorship previously imposed by the threat of libel litigation.
The action of the Law Lords may also express the strengthened will of an important section of the English political and legal establishment to remove the protections Saudis have long enjoyed in the United Kingdom. English official determination to expose and punish the illicit transnational activities of the Saudi-Wahhabi elite is a major victory for security.