Archive for April, 2013

Defamation Bill receives Royal Assent

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

You can watch the delightfully archaic ceremony here from 15:33.

The Clerk of the Parliaments

The Clerk of the Parliaments

In the ceremony, the name of the Bill is read by The Lord Hill of Oareford, the Leader of the House of Lords, followed by the announcement “La Reyne le veult” (the Queen wills it) which is made by the Clerk of the Parliaments, an official of the House of Lords. With that statement, the Bill has passed through the entire parliamentary process. All that is needed is a commencement order to enact the legislation.

The Leader of the House of Lords

With the Defamation Bill, Nick Clegg’s public unease over the Communications Data Bill and the reform of Section 5 of the Public Order Act it has been a good day for free speech:

My conversation with a Chinese dissident

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, International

I started speaking to a Chinese man, in his forties, on the tram from the Albert Hall in Brussels to the Eurostar. He was one of the students who organised the protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He described to me what happened to his life in the years following the massacre. For seven years, he went in and out of jail, mainly due to minor technical offenses as he continued his friendship with fellow student activists. In 1996, he was placed under house arrest with his wife in a Southern province of China. Under house arrest, he was not allowed to great visitors. Three guards lived outside (and in) his house at all times. He lived constantly under the threat of re-arrest and imprisonment. Eventually, he persuaded the authorities that he should be allowed to work. First, he worked at a market stall selling fish. Soon, his boss sacked him, as the pressure from the local party was too great for him to continue to employ a ‘trouble-maker’. Afterwards, he worked in a supermarket, moving crates. The man told me any work was preferable to staying at home – after all, he had studied for a degree. It was during his long work shifts day-dreaming while moving boxes at the supermarket he decided he had to escape to China. The store had two entrances on different streets. He entered the store one morning as usual and worked his shift. At the end of the day, minutes before the end of his shift, he left via the second entrance onto the other street. At the other side of the crossroads, he could see his jailers patiently waiting for him in their car. He got in a taxi and drove across town to a nearby depot. He tried to stay calm to avoid suspicion. Afterwards, he sat in the back of a transit truck, surrounded by meat carcasses, heading south towards Hong Kong.

He did not say what had happened to his wife, though he told me he still communicates with his family via Skype – it’s the only way he gets to see his loved ones. Before the truck got to Hong Kong a friend set him up in a safe house, next to the border. It was May 1997, six weeks before the formal handover to China. This week, the right suffered a collective memory loss over Thatcher’s handover of Hong Kong, the last outpost of democracy surrounded by a sea of authoritarianism. All dissidents at the time knew there was one street that crossed the Hong Kong / China border, near the Lo Wu border crossing in Shenzhen. This street did not have a formal border crossing, instead a pair of guards walked from one side of the street to the other. At night, the man, fearing for his life waited until one of the guards went in to get a drink before he made a dash for freedom. The guards chased him into Hong Kong. Darting through the streets he made it into a police station and claimed asylum. Weeks later this would have been impossible. Now, he lives in London and helps connect Chinese dissidents. His story is not fantastical by Chinese standards, he told his account entirely in a measured tone. That such bravery is so commonplace in China is a measure of the degeneration of the state’s social contract with its people.

Attack on NGOs in Russia

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression, International

My letter to the Guardian is available online here.

The Russian authorities have not only targeted foreign NGOs (Report, 28 March), but also domestic human rights groups, includingMemorial, which received the Index on Censorship 40th Anniversary award last year for its courageous research into the crimes of the Soviet regime. Other groups targeted include theMoscow Helsinki Group, the oldest Russian human rights NGO. Russia should comply with its international commitments and uphold freedom of expression, assembly and association – and stop these raids. The EU and its member states should take action in accordance with the EU commitment to support and protect civil society, and human rights activists. The situation in Russia is in decline. Index joins an appeal by our partners in the Civic Solidarity Platform, a coalition of 50 human rights NGOs from around the OSCE, that urgent action must be taken now to prevent the situation for human rights activists on the ground in Russia getting worse.

Mike Harris
Head of advocacy, Index on Censorship

China & Burma

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression, International

Yesterday I wrote about the return of private daily newspaper to Burma on Index on Censorship:

1 April heralded the return of private daily newspaper to the streets of Burma. Since the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act the state has held highly restrictive powers to license newspapers and publishers creating one of the most hostile environments on earth for a free print media. Since the transition period, the new President Thein Sein has signalled that the government would liberalise restrictions on the media. Prior to the return of daily newspapers, privately-owned weekly journals had begun to flourish as demand for independent news markedly increased. On 1 February this year, the government launched the process to allow the independent media to bid for daily licenses.

Reaction in China to the relaxation of Burma’s highly restrictive media laws was pointed according to the Want China Times:

Some internet users have expressed their envy with coded comments such as “although we cannot eat it yet, at least we can smell it,” while others suggested such media freedom is not suited to China’s current circumstances. “Myanmar has stepped on the road toward democracy and freedom. Will China have its day? Let us wait and see,” an internet user said. And, “Myanmar’s achievement was earned by opposition forces led by Aung San Suu Kyi. China has not reached this stage,” another stated.

It’s a strange idea that China must earn her democracy.

Co-op on Hither Green Lane applies for 7.30am license

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Lewisham Council

In recent years, there has been a serious problem with street drinking in the Hither Green Lane area. Many local residents (unfairly, in my view) have associated this problem with the residents of St Mungo’s homeless hostel which has worked hard to tackle this problem. What is clear is that extending licenses in this area would exacerbate the problem. So it’s extremely galling to see ethical food trader, the Co-op (Hither Green Green Lane, SE13 6QH) apply to extend its license to sell alcohol at 7.30am in the morning.

Unfortunately it is too late to place an objection. The hearing at Lewisham Council is on the 17th April at 7.15pm and has been moved because of resident representations. Members of the public are welcome to attend but are not allowed to address the committee. To attend please fill in this form quoting reference PL0250.

I will be speaking to my fellow councillors on the committee as a matter of urgency.

Councillor Mike Harris, one of 3 Labour councillors for Lewisham Central said:

“It is beyond belief that the Co-operative, an ethical retailer, wants to sell alcohol at 7.30 am in an area next to a homeless hostel. Hither Green Lane already has a problem with street drinkers which we’re working hard to tackle. Selling alcohol earlier will only make matters worse. I hope they will withdraw this application before the 17 April.”

Should public servants be able to use public money to sue for libel?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression, Lewisham Council

Blogger Jacqui Thompson is now £25,000 poorer after losing a libel action against the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council, Mark James. The judge found the posts on her Carmarthenshire Planning Problems blog to be defamatory and that she was engaged in an “unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation targeted against Mr James and other council officers”.

Yet while Thompson paid for the case out of her own pocket, the ratepayers of Carmarthenshire paid for the chief executive’s libel action. In these straitened times, is it really fair that taxpayer’s money is being used to fund a libel case?

Carmarthenshire council is not alone. South Tyneside council is paying for its chief executive and council leader to bring proceedings against one of its own councillors. In South London the Durand Academy, a primary school, has on multiple occasions funded libel claims. This is a live debate with the government’s Defamation Bill (the first wholesale reform of our archaic libel law since 1843 ) currently passing through parliament after a long fight by the Libel Reform Campaign. An amendment tabled in the House of Lords by the Labour party, with support from influential Tory Peer Lord McWhinney and Liberal Democrat Peer Anthony Lester will (if passed by the Commons) block corporations and public bodies from suing individuals for libel, unless the libel has caused “substantial financial harm”. However an important loophole remains.

Public bodies themselves cannot sue for defamation. Derbyshire county council vs. Times Newspapers Ltd (1993) rules out public bodies from suing for libel. Lord Keith’s judgement makes clear the importance of “uninhibited public criticism” of democratically elected and public bodies.

The remaining loophole is the judgement does not prevent public bodies from using taxpayer’s money to fund libel actions on behalf of their staff.

In the Carmarthenshire case, Mr Justice Tugendhat reiterated the importance of the bar on public bodies suing directly, and emphasised the greater latitude members of the public had in criticising public bodies, but did not believe that allowing councillors or officers of a local authority to sue for libel would infringe the right to freedom of expression. “The decision of the House of Lords is binding on me. But in my judgment there is nothing in the suggestion that it is contrary to Art 10 that a member or between officer of a local authority should be able to sue for libel,” he said.

He also refused to restrict the ability of public bodies to use taxpayer’s money to pay for libel actions on behalf of their employees saying that such indemnities needed to be challenged: “There are procedures by which the grant of an indemnity by a council to an employee in respect of the costs of litigation can be challenged.”

Yet the procedures to challenge are complex and only relate to whether the local authority is funding the libel action to circumvent the Derbyshire principle. The default position in law established by Mr Justice Sullivan in Comninos vs Bedford borough council is that councils can fund libel actions on behalf of their staff – unless challenged. Local bloggers can now find themselves sued by a council employee backed with the full financial weight of the local authority, and yet will only know whether this is legal or not if they challenge this funding separately. It’s hard to see how any blogger or citizen critic could fund such a challenge unless they have very deep pockets indeed.

These indemnities have a corrosive effect on local democracy. Local authorities, sensing the controversy over using taxpayers’ money to sue their own citizens, are not transparent about the costs of these claims.

I tabled a freedom of information request to Carmarthenshire to find out how much it had spent on the libel action. It refused to disclose this information, citing an exemption. From a wider request, I did find out that the council spent £891,433 in legal fees in 2012. This is the same county council that is making 450 people redundant and closing down training services for disabled people.

The defamation bill will continue the bar on public authorities directly suing their critics for defamation. Yet, without action to stop them directly funding libel actions on behalf of councillors or officers, the power and resources of the state can still be used to silence citizen critics.

It is self-evident that public servants should be able to sue for defamation if directly and unfairly criticised, but it is not fair to expect taxpayers in this period of austerity to pick up the bill.

This article was originally published on the Guardian Local Government Network on 2 April 2013.