Politics & Society

London libel ruling against Ethiopian dissident shows urgent need for reform

Elias Kifle is an Ethiopian journalist who runs a news website, the Ethiopian Review, from his exile in the United States. He is a fierce critic of the Ethiopian government, which is among the top ten “jailers” of journalists worldwide, and he has twice been sentenced to life imprisonment by it — once for treason, in 2007, and once for supposed “terrorism”, in 2012.

Yet, in an unlikely twist of fate, the Ethiopian authorities are not the only ones pursuing him in court: Elias Kifle’s name appears with some regularity in the cause lists of the London libel courts. Although his website is run from the US, publishes to an Ethiopian audience on matters concerning Ethiopia, the London courts have warmly welcomed those who wish to sue him for libel. Prime amongst his pursuers has been Ethiopian-born billionaire, Sheikh Mohamed Al-Amoudi.

Mr Al Amoudi, a businessman so keen to preserve his reputation that his Wikipedia entry has been flagged up as inappropriate because it has been edited by people who have a “close connection” with him, has been granted two default judgments against Elias Kifle: a £175,000 award made in 2010, and a £180,000 award made last week.

Being based in the States and lacking the financial means to hire lawyers, Mr Kifle chose not to defend either of these claims. Last week’s case was allowed to proceed because of Mr Al Amoudi’s business activities and reputation among Ethiopians in London, five of whom gave evidence as having read the piece in question; the fact he is a “frequent visitor” to London; and the fact that Mr Al Amoudi’s children were educated in England. The judge, Mr Justice Eady, does not appear to have considered whether it is even remotely feasible for an Ethiopian journalist exiled in the US and who runs a news website on a shoestring budget to obtain the services of libel defence lawyers. Instead he cites Kifle’s rude responses to Al Amoudi’s lawyers as evidence of Kifle’s intent to wage a “campaign of denigration … without ever having to face [Al Amoudi] in court”.

In many ways, there is nothing new about this — readers of this website will be familiar with the Ukrainian website being sued in London by a Ukrainian oligarch over articles published in Ukrainian; and a few years ago my organisation, the Media Legal Defence Initiative, had to call on the pro bono services of media lawyer Mark Stephens to neutralise a London libel threat against the Nepali Times (which, for the avoidance of doubt, publishes from Kathmandu, Nepal). In both these cases, as in Kifle’s case, the claimants could prove some connection to London — not surprising since most of the world’s nationalities are represented there and the publications in question were accessible online.

But in all these cases, the courts have completely failed to appreciate the difficult position of foreign defendants. Judges don’t appreciate the real chilling effect exerted by the financial cost of defending a libel suit in London (estimated in an Oxford University study reporting as more than a hundred times more expensive in London than elsewhere in Europe). Why should a defendant in the US, Nepal or Ukraine be expected to rack up hundreds of thousands in legal fees (assuming for the moment they have that kind of money in the first place) when they are unlikely to recover this even if they win? And is it really that surprising that an exiled journalist twice sentenced to life in prison displays a certain amount of “scorn” for lawyers and legal proceedings (Mr Justice Eady’s disdain of Elias Kifle and his cavalier attitude to Al Amoudi’s lawyers is evident)? Even if they had a choice — which they do not, because they have no money — many defendants in these matters will prefer to suffer a default judgment, even if that means they will not be able to set up business in London in the future, over certain bankruptcy even if they win a case.

Over the last few years, libel tourism cases have continued to pop up despite international outrage. The US has adopted federal legislation barring the enforcement of English libel judgments — and even allowing for counterclaims — and last year, the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation on libel tourism noting that “[p]rocedural costs may discourage defendants from presenting a defence thus leading to default judgments.”

If the Defamation Bill goes through, the end of the phenomenon of libel tourism may be in sight. Under the new regime proposed by the bill, currently in its final stages in Parliament but in danger of disappearing in the Leveson maelstrom, libel proceedings against foreign defendants cannot proceed unless London is “clearly the most appropriate place in which to bring an action in respect of the statement”. Ministers have made it clear that this means judges must take into account the procedural (un)fairness of requiring a foreign defendant to travel thousands of miles and/or engage lawyers they cannot afford. Let us hope judges will apply this in the spirit it is intended — and let’s hope the bill is enacted; it would mean Elias Kifle’s name will appear in the London cause lists no more.

Peter Noorlander is CEO of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, an organisation that defends journalists’ rights and provides legal aid to journalists around the world

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7 Comments

  1. Posted 06Mar13 at 5:33 am | Permalink
    Loverat

    A most unsatisfactory state of affairs. Mind you – I am surprised at the comments about Justice Eady because he is a reasonable judge. I wonder whether the defendant perhaps did not show respect to the court by informing them of his difficult circumstances. I take the point that the defendant cannot travel the world to defend every speculative and vexatious claim but one would hope he at least engaged with the system.

    This does raise wider concerns which I think needs to be dealt with. We have a list of vexatious litigants in England and Wales and I think we have reached the time when vexatious governments, wealthy foreigners and vain foreign fools who issue claims like confetti should be restrained by our courts and not bring claims without specific permission. Tinpot repressive dictatorships such as Uzbekistan are prime examples of countries which abuse our courts and should be listed here:

    http://www.justice.gov.uk/courts/vexatious-litigants

    Meanwhile those who are wrecking the defamation bill fall into a another category. Inconsiderate, selfish and wrong.

  2. Posted 06Mar13 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I think that’s a terrific suggestion. Someone (Gavin Millar QC) mentioned at a meeting some time ago that there should be a “visa regime” for libel tourists – for exactly the same reason as you mention. There ought to be a presumption against a foreign claimant suing a foreign respondent in London for internet publications. The defamation bill kind of does this and that’s why it is such a shame that that bill may fall victim to party politics.

  3. Posted 06Mar13 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
    Jonathan

    Thanks for this great post.

    I feel sorry for Elias Kifle. I knew that he would be in trouble sooner or later. He has displayed very rude and unprofessional characters for so many years while posting articles in his website.

    Mr. Kifle copies and pastes what others have written fully in his website (mostly with out credits), and edits the way he likes others to read it:

    For instance, If the news said, “Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in New York City for a UN Meeting”, he would cross out this heading and leave it for people to see it as crossed out, and writes next to it as:

    “Thief Woyane Crime Minister Meles Zenawi in New York City for a UN Meeting”.

    I have never never come across an “editor” who does something like this anywhere. This is just one example. He has posted a lot of unprofessional posts in his website, but he got away with it for too many years.

    Finally, his acts got him in trouble when he attacked the wealthiest black person on the planet: Ethiopian born Sheikh Mohammad Al-Amoudi.

    Elias had many lawyer friends who could have represented him at this trial. But, where were they? Did they abandon him?

    A quick search (for key words: “al-amoud judgement against elias kifle”)resulted in this:
    http://www.meleszenawi.com/sheik-mohammed-al-moudi-wins-libel-action-against-ethiopian-review-inc-and-its-editor-elias-kifle/

    The link above has a pdf file you can download and view the full decision of the London courts.

    Al-Amoudi obviously doesn’t need the money, but he is teaching others a lesson. Think twice and have evidence before you post anything online!

    Have a great day.

  4. Posted 07Mar13 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
    Fikre

    Why didn’t Al-Amoudi sue the rest of the Ethiopian websites, just only Elias Kifle? Because, the other sites knew their boundaries and did not cross that and published libel posts as Ethiopian Review did.

    Don’t mess with Al-Amoudi. He had sued others in the past for defamation and won.

    Who is next in line to be sued by Al-Amoudi? I suspect and I predict that it will be ESAT if they ever attack him.

    If ESAT people are clever, then they will know their boundaries and never cross it. If they are dumb, then goodbye to ESAT. ESAT will have to walk a fine line when it comes to Al-Amoudi.

    How will Elias be able to pay $450K? Sell his house? Go to prison? Declare bankruptcy?

    The funny part is even after this judgement against Elias, his website still has the offending posts in the site. If I were him, I would have removed it a long time ago.

    Peace.

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  1. [...] London libel ruling against Ethiopian dissident shows urgent need for reform (indexoncensorship.org) Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailGoogle +1Like this:Like Loading… [...]

  2. By Puppet Show | The Honest Courtesan on 04Mar13 at 10:02 am

    [...] information contained in this column, but they prefer to remain anonymous due to the fact that the UK’s tyrannical libel laws make it very easy for the wealthy and well-connected to censor those who are less so.) Share this:ShareEmailFacebookPrintTwitterRedditStumbleUponDiggGoogle [...]

  3. [...] This has huge global implications. Ethiopian billionaire Sheikh Mohamed Al-Amoudi recently won £175,000 and £180,000 in default judgements against the Ethiopian journalist who runs the Ethiopia… from exile in the US. See also the case of the “Ukrainian attacked in a Ukrainian newspaper [...]

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