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Journalist appeals Australian jurisdiction ruling to UN

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Journalist appeals Australian jurisdiction ruling to UN

  • In an unusual legal move, an American financial reporter filed a complaint with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights challenging Australia’s libel laws.

April 21, 2003 — The American journalist being sued by Australian businessman Joseph Gutnick filed a complaint April15 with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, alleging that Australia’s libel laws violate his right to publish on the Internet.

William Alpert, a reporter for Barron’s magazine, made the unusual appeal in reaction to a December 2002 ruling from the Australian High Court, which held that a news article written in the United States and published online could be the basis of a defamation lawsuit in Australia.

Alpert said in an April 15 statement: “I am filing this action with the Human Rights Commission in Geneva because I fear restrictions on the ability of financial journalists such as myself to report truthfully to United States investors on the activities of foreigners who are actively engaged in the U.S. markets. I even fear for our ability to report on U.S. corporations and business people, who might see the High Court’s decision as an invitation to attack the U.S. press in a remote forum. Given the differences between the laws of Australia and those of other countries in the Commonwealth and beyond, the impact of Australia’s law — as laid out by the High Court — could harm journalists throughout the world.”

Alpert’s plea claims that application of Australia’s libel laws against him violates Article 19 of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 19 addresses freedom of expression.

“I hope that the Human Rights Committee will recognize the threat to free speech — and an informed public — posed by Australian laws that allow suit against any journalist, anywhere that an article published on the internet can be downloaded,” Alpert said. “Perhaps the Government of Australia will recognize the need to modify its laws, even before the Human Rights Committee takes up this case.”

Alpert wrote an article in Barron’s titled “Unholy Gains” in October 2000. The article also was published on The Wall Street Journal Online. Australian mining mogul Joseph Gutnick, who was mentioned in the story, filed a defamation lawsuit against Dow Jones & Company, publisher of both Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal Online.

The Austrialian High Court’s December 2002 decision not to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction fueled an international debate on the question of where libel cases over Internet postings may be brought.

The libel case is due to go to trial in Victoria, Australia in November.

(Dow Jones v. Gutnick; Counsel representing William Alpert before UN, Paul Reidy, Sydney, Australia) WT

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