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Federal law opposing ‘libel tourism’ approved by Congress

July 28, 2010 1 comment

By Rachel Ehrenfeld

NEW YORK–As the founder of the movement against libel tourism, I congratulate Congress foir unanimously passing HR 2765 (as amended by the Leahy-Sessions ‘Speech’ Act) on July 27th. A bipartisan bill, the ‘Speech’ Act is based on New York State’s “Libel Terrorism Protection Act” (also known as “Rachel’s Law”). The ‘Speech’Act marks the culmination of a national campaign I spearheaded following my own experiences with libel tourism.

It began when my third book, Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It, was published in the U.S. in the Fall of 2003. In Funding Evil, I documented how Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz funded al-Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Shortly after the book was published in the U.S., Mahfouz sued me for libel in London, attempting to use the plaintiff-friendly British libel laws to intimidate me into silence. Mahfouz had used this tactic to bully more than 40 authors and a publisher into apologies for and retractions of similar revelations. While British libel laws were often used by the rich and famous to silience and intimidate critisizm, the Saudi used the British laws and courts as a weapon in the lawfare against the American and Western media, and effectively “chillled” further exposes on Saudi and Gulf funders of terrorism.

I refused to acknowledge the British court’s jurisdiction over me as I did not live in England, nor was my book published or marketed there. The English court ruled against me by default, ordering that I pay a hefty fine, apologize, retract my statements and foot Mahfouz’s substantial legal fees.

Represented by Daniel Kornstein of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP, I countersued Mahfouz in New York to prevent the enforcement of the default judgment on the grounds that it did not meet the standard of American First Amendment protections for free speech. When the court dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction over Mahfouz, the New York State Legislature, led by Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D), and Senator Dean Skelos (R)  acted quickly, and passed “Rachel’s Law,” in April 2008, enabling the New York courts to take jurisdiction over foreign libel plaintiffs who sue New York authors and publishers abroad.

Since then, seven states, including California, have passed similar protective legislation protecting their residents.

With the SPEECH Act Congress has taken action against libel tourism – a dire threat to our freedom and democracy. Representatives Cohen (D-TN), King (R-NY) and Senators Leahy (D-VT), Sessions (R-AL), Specter (D-PA), Lieberman (D-CT), Schumer (D-NY), Wyden (D-MN), and Kyl (R-AZ), and their dedicated staffs, made the ‘Speech’ Act a reality. They have taken a great step forward in securing the freedom of expression that our constitution guarantees.

The “Speech’ Act will uphold First Amendment protections for American free expression by guarding American authors and publishers from the enforcement of frivolous foreign libel suits, filed in countries that do not have our strong free speech protections. Such lawsuits are often used by “libel-tourists” in an effort to suppress the rights of American scholars, writers, and journalists to speak, write and publish freely in print and on the Internet.

The Act grants “a cause of action for declaratory judgment relief against a party who has brought a successful foreign defamation action whose judgment undermines the First Amendment,” and provides for legal fees. These measures will help diminish the severe chilling effect such suits have already had on journalists, researchers, the general media, particularly on matters of national security and public safety.

“Libel tourism threatens to undermine the principles of free speech because foreign courts often don’t place as difficult a burden on plaintiffs in libel cases,” said Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN).  “I believe our First Amendment rights to be among the most sacred principles laid out in the Constitution.  It is vital we ensure that these rights are never undermined by foreign judgments.”

The editorial pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, and the San Diego Jewish World, as well as organizations such as the Association of American Publishers, American Library Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Independent Book Publishers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and 9/11 Families for a Secure America, among others, have supported me in this important fight for free speech.

The unanimity of support for this bill in Congress demonstrates the importance of combating libel tourism and its chilling effects on free speech. With a stroke of his pen, signing the bill into law, President Obama will help ensure that authors and publishers maintain the right to freely wield theirs in the pursuit of legitimate research and scholarship.

That day will not come soon enough. But there is more to do.
As Senator Kyl observed; “The Congress needs to pass broader measures that permit U.S. citizens accused of libel in foreign courts to force their accusers to pay for legal fees incurred abroad and, in certain cases, additional damages. Libel tourism will continue to pose problems for Americans until those who bring foreign libel lawsuits are faced with the same kinds of financial risks they seek to inflict on others.”
 
In the meantime, my efforts against libel tourism have encouraged a libel reform movement in England and have led the British government to propose corrective legislation. I hope that the enactment of the “Speech’ Act helps spread a new trend toward libel law reform, enabling the media to report safely on matters of national security and public interest globally.

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Ehrenfeld is the director of the American Center for Democracy, based in New York

Health Care compromise wins approval, reservations from Jewish officeholders and interest groups

December 25, 2009 Leave a comment

 WASHINGTON, D.C. (Roundup)–Passage by the Senate on Thursday by a 60-39 vote of the Health Care Reform Act prompted the following commentary from Jewish officeholders and interest groups.

Senator Russell Feingold (Democrat-Wisconsin): The Senate health care bill is far from perfect.  I am deeply disappointed it does not include a public option to help keep down costs and I also don’t like the deal making that secured votes with unjustifiable provisions.  I will work to improve the bill, including restoring the public option, when the final version is drafted.

“But, while this bill could and should have been much stronger, it includes very important provisions for Wisconsin that I worked to include.  The bill will bring more Medicare dollars to Wisconsin by improving the unfair reimbursement formula that has siphoned money away from the state for years, and by rewarding the high-quality, low-cost care practiced at places like Gundersen Lutheran and the Marshfield Clinic.  Wisconsin taxpayers also win because we will see a boost in Medicaid funding, so our state isn’t harshly penalized for its leadership in expanding coverage.  The bill also ends discrimination by insurance companies against people with preexisting conditions, expands coverage to 30 million more Americans and reduces the deficit by an estimated $132 billion.  Despite the bill’s flaws, it does meet the test of real reform, and the cost of inaction was much too high.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California): “I voted in support of this bill because I believe it remains our best chance at reforming our broken health care system. With this bill, health care transitions from a privilege to a right for all Americans.

“We tried in 1993 and 1994, and failed. More than 15 years have passed since our last effort. This may be our last, best opportunity before we are forced to wait another 15 years for real reform. And our country cannot afford to wait any longer. Our nation’s health care system is unsustainable.

“This bill is not perfect. There are provisions in it that I would like to change. It is a work in progress, and I will continue to push for necessary improvements to lessen any fiscal impact to California.

“However, this bill accomplishes several important objectives:

“It is incremental. There will be time to make needed adjustments before it is fully effective.

“The bill expands insurance coverage and provides new consumer protections from insurance company abuses.

“It is fiscally responsible. This bill will reduce the deficit and prolong the solvency of the Medicare Trust Fund.

“It covers 31 million Americans who have no coverage today.

“This legislation leaves the best of our health care system in place. It prohibits insurance companies from denying care based on pre-existing conditions. And it offers tax credits to small businesses to help cover the costs of health insurance policies for their employees.

“To lack health insurance is not just an inconvenience, it also can be deadly. Expanding health coverage is a moral issue which I believe reflects the character of our nation. In the richest country in the world, no one should die because they cannot afford health coverage. For all of the bill’s imperfections, I am convinced that it will mean the difference between life and death for some people. And it is not every day that we can say that about a piece of legislation.”

Senator Frank Lautenberg (Democrat-New Jersey): “This historic Senate action brings us a step closer to providing affordable, quality health care to millions of Americans who are struggling to pay their medical bills and stay healthy.  In addition to making health care more accessible, this bill will reduce the federal budget deficit, strengthen Medicare and ensure that health care is about people instead of insurance company profits.  I worked hard to include a provision that will help families in high cost of living states like New Jersey have fair access to affordable care. I also fought to include a requirement that will stop insurance companies’ outrageous practice of denying coverage to children with pre-existing medical conditions.  This bill is a win for America and a win for New Jersey.  I was proud to support it and will continue working to ensure a strong health care reform measure reaches the President’s desk.” 

Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan): “The road to health care reform has been long and difficult. This legislation is not perfect; no legislation on so complicated an issue could be. But it would make important reforms to our health care system that will curb insurance-company abuses, begin to control costs, and reduce inefficiency and waste.

“For those who have insurance, it will reduce the uncertainties as to whether their insurance will really be there for them if they develop serious health problems. For tens of millions of working Americans with no insurance at all, or for those who have pre-existing conditions and are denied coverage, it would provide much-needed help.

“Significant challenges remain in resolving the different approaches of the House and Senate, but the Senate today took a major historic step toward providing secure health care for all Americans.”

Senator Arlen Specter (Democrat, Pennsylvania):  “The Senate took a historic step today in seeing to it that quality health care becomes a right in America and not a privilege. While I would have preferred inclusion of a public option, this bill may be improved in conference and is a significant step forward for incremental reform. It took the initial steps of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964 to set the stage for the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. That precedent could be followed by future healthcare legislation.

“The bill includes many important advances: covering 31 million more Americans, providing insurance reforms, and preventing someone from being denied healthcare because of a preexisting condition. It also includes two key provisions I urged: funding clinical trials to bring NIH research to practical application and tougher penalties to deter Medicare and Medicaid fraud.”

Senator Ron Wyden (Democrat-Oregon): “We’ve always known that the path to reforming the nation’s health care system was going to be long and it wasn’t going to be easy, but this legislation takes a significant step in the right direction. So while it’s important to celebrate how far we’ve come, let’s remember this is only a start.  This legislation creates exchanges that we must expand access to.  It puts in place insurance market reforms that we have to make certain get enforced and it gives choice and competition a new foothold that we will build on until every American has the power to choose the health insurance that works best for them and their family.  I pledge to continue this effort in the days ahead as we work to reconcile this legislation with the House and in the months and years ahead as our legislative effort continues.”

B’nai B’rith International: “This bill is certainly not ideal, and we hope some vital missing elements will be restored in conference. The lack of a public option, or any mechanism which would guarantee insurance competition and access to affordable premiums in all states, is especially troubling. But the inclusion of the CLASS Act, which would create a voluntary insurance system to cover long-term healthcare costs that neither current health insurance nor Medicare cover, is welcome news. The elimination of pre-existing condition exclusions will also make lifelong access to healthcare possible for many, but age-rating still requires older Americans to pay too much simply because of their age. Again, this is something we hope will be reconsidered in conference committee.

“With a long and solid record on advocacy for seniors, B’nai B’rith is deeply concerned with healthy aging, which can only be achieved by making sure people have lifelong access to healthcare including prevention, diagnostic, and chronic condition maintenance. Ensuring everyone is covered is a vital aging issue.

“’For decades, reforming our shattered healthcare system has been unacceptably out of reach,’” B’nai B’rith International President Dennis W. Glick said. “‘This bill—as with the House version—takes historic steps toward truly reforming our healthcare system, and it should be applauded as such. However, it should be seen as the beginning of a process that will make more meaningful changes in our healthcare system. Healthcare is not a privilege just for the wealthy or the employed. Every American deserves preventive medical care.’

“B’nai B’rith has long been an advocate for comprehensive healthcare reform. It is unacceptable that nearly 47 million Americans are uninsured and millions more are underinsured. And far too many Americans are ‘uninsurable’ in the private market tying their healthcare to their jobs—creating a potential double whammy in an unstable economy should employment or benefits be cut.

“’This monumental undertaking no doubt has resulted in some concessions in the construction of the bill,’ B’nai B’rith Director of Aging Policy Rachel Goldberg, Ph.D., said. ‘There are just too many moving parts for everyone to be satisfied. But the Senate bill provides insurance where none existed before. Improvements can come later. What’s crucial now for the millions of Americans without insurance is that they may soon be covered, paving the way for lifelong access to care which, combined with a healthier Medicare, will mean healthy aging becomes a reality.’

“B’nai B’rith urges the House and Senate to work quickly to reconcile their bills.”

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: “The Union for Reform Judaism applauds the Senate’s approval of landmark health insurance reform legislation, as the time is long past due to repair our broken system that leaves over 47 million people uninsured and millions more underinsured each year. We commend our nation’s senators who have been working tirelessly to bring us to this historic moment.

“This crucial legislation would insure an additional 30 million Americans, make health insurance more affordable by increasing federal subsidies for low-income Americans and limiting out of pocket costs and also improve Medicaid and Medicare. While we are pleased to see a commitment to increased access to health insurance, we remain disappointed with key pieces of the legislation. The bill lacks a government-run public insurance option, which would control costs to further improve affordability and accessibility of care. We are also concerned about severe limitations to women’s access to reproductive health services. We must work efficiently to pass health reform swiftly but we cannot allow expediency to overshadow women’s rights avowed in Roe v. Wade or eliminate the essential public option. Conferees must not sacrifice these elements for the sake of political expediency.

“As the bill moves to conference, we remain committed to our vision of comprehensive health insurance reform: coverage must be affordable, accessible and quality and reform must include a public insurance option, rest on a financially sustainable foundation and protect women’s access to reproductive health care. Americans have a right to health care, and we look forward to working with members of Congress toward a healthy future for all Americans.”

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Preceding article incorporates press releases from the aforementioned  Jewish senators and Jewish  public interest groups.

Wyden calls for action to shut off flow of money from Saudi Arabia and other countries to Taliban

December 22, 2009 Leave a comment

 WASHINGTON, D.C (Press Release)–As the United States prepares to ramp up troop levels in Afghanistan and bring that war to a close, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon) called on Richard C. Holbrooke, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to turn attention to the illicit funding streams that are propping up the Taliban’s ability to remain a threat to U.S. troops and the Afghan people.

In a letter dated December 21, Wyden asked for greater investigation into private donors and charities in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries that have long been a funding source for the Taliban rivaling even the illicit drug trade. These donors, while operating outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, inevitably affect the Taliban’s ability to wage armed conflict. Shutting down these funding streams will inhibit the Taliban’s effectiveness and help to make the region safer. Choking off funding from these groups will also benefit broader counterterrorism efforts as the same financiers aiding the Taliban are undoubtedly funding other like-minded terrorist groups.

“In order to reduce the flow of funds to the Taliban, the U.S. and its allies must be more active in pressuring these governments,” Wyden wrote in the letter, “Simply put, if these countries are important to the Taliban and other enemies of the U.S. then they must also be important to the United States.”

In the letter, Wyden suggests the U.S. identify other cooperative governments and “lend U.S. expertise, provide training, share information and work jointly against facilitiators.” He also called on the U.S. to apply pressure to those governments not working collaboratively with the U.S. and “explore ways that American agencies can take action directly, or in concert with other allies.”

As efforts on the ground in Afghanistan continue to operate toward conclusion of that war, Wyden said it was pivotal that the U.S. combat terrorist funding streams throughout Middle East.

“In short, while connections between the Persian Gulf and the mountains of Afghanistan may not be intuitive, cutting off the invisible ties that bind them together will nonetheless be a vital part of any successful Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy,” Wyden concluded in the letter.

Full text of the letter is below: 
 

December 21, 2009
The Honorable Richard C. Holbrooke
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan
US Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC  20520
Dear Ambassador Holbrooke:
As the executive branch moves to implement the President’s new strategy for beating back the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, it will be important to cut off the revenue that the Taliban relies on to operate.  I urge you, as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to ensure that these efforts look beyond Central Asia and specifically address funding sources in the Persian Gulf.  

The Taliban rely almost entirely on illegal funding sources for their very existence.  Some of these sources are internal (including extortion and pseudo-taxation in Taliban-held or contested territories) but the majority are external to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While narcotics trafficking tends to garner the most international attention, funding from private donations actually rivals drug money as a Taliban revenue source.  And while it is difficult to quantify these donations precisely (as the Taliban, after all, do not publish an annual report) it is clear that a large portion of these donations come from private donors and charities in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries.  Therefore, any strategy for weakening the Taliban should take them into account.  Simply put, if these countries are important to the Taliban and other enemies of the US then they must also be important to the United States.  

Private donors and charities in the Gulf states have long been a fount of funds for a variety of Islamist terrorist groups around the world.  In recent years, the governments of Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf countries have started to recognize the threat posed by al Qaida and other terrorist groups that have conducted spectacular attacks in Arab nations.  This has led to some cooperation on counterterrorism efforts targeting al Qaida.  But it is clear that there is more work to be done.  As a September 2009 GAO report put it, “The Saudi Government has initiated legal action against terrorist financiers, but the United States has reported the need for further action.”  Furthermore, it is not at all clear that these governments see the Taliban, and other violent groups (such as Hamas) that do not target them directly, as an equivalent threat to al Qaida.  Therefore, in order to reduce the flow of funds to the Taliban, the US and its allies must be more active in pressuring these governments.  

As some of the same financiers are undoubtedly raising money for al Qaida and other terrorist groups, cutting off these funding streams for the Taliban will pay dividends for other counterterrorism efforts, both in Central Asia and around the world.  

Efforts to choke off Taliban fundraising in the Gulf states can take many forms.  To the extent that the governments of these countries are cooperative, the US can lend expertise, provide training, share information and work jointly to arrest facilitators, interdict couriers, and otherwise stem the flow of illicit funds to the Taliban.  To the extent that these governments are not cooperative, the US can pressure them to take a more active role in combating fundraising, and explore ways that American agencies can take action directly, or in concert with other allies.  (This could build on work the Treasury Department is already doing to single out particular financiers, or making extradition requests when couriers travel to third countries, for example).  

Efforts to build the capacity of friendly governments will also enable them to be more effective in combating other forms of illicit financing, to include money laundering and other criminal activities.  

In short, while connections between the Persian Gulf and the mountains of Afghanistan may not be intuitive, cutting off the invisible ties that bind them together will nonetheless be a vital part of any successful Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.  

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be helpful to your efforts on this issue.  
                                                                                Sincerely,

                                                                                Ron Wyden
                                                                                United States Senator