Britain announces plans to reform libel laws

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The British government announced plans Friday to reform its laws on defamation, amid fears they are hampering freedom of speech and encouraging "libel tourism" by the world's rich and powerful.

The Ministry of Justice said it would publish draft legislation for consultation early in 2011, looking at how existing laws intended to protect people's reputations could be damaging research and investigative journalism.

"We need investigative journalism and scientific research to be able to flourish without the fear of unfounded, lengthy and costly defamation and libel cases being brought against them," said Justice Minister Lord Tom McNally.

"We are committed to reforming the law on defamation and want to focus on ensuring that a right and a fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation."

England's libel laws are widely viewed as some of the toughest in the world and the press have dubbed London the "libel capital" of the world because of the stream of foreign claimants who come here to sue for defamation.

Index on Censorship, a non-governmental organisation that has long been calling for a change in the law, said it was "delighted" at the announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron's new coalition government.

"We are delighted, but obviously we'll need to see how bold the government will be -- they must stop libel tourism, cut the obscene legal costs involved and give cast iron protections to free speech," said Index chief executive John Kampfner.

© 2010 AFP

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