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Knight Center


U.S. courts throw out defamation cases against journalists, TV station

In Latin America, media outlets and journalists are often targeted with libel suits that ultimately end in extensive fines and jail. As recent court decisions indicate, in the U.S. – where libel is a civil, not criminal matter – this is not as common: In three separate cases this month, appellate courts ruled that journalists in Atlanta and Dallas did not libel local figures, and a TV station that ran a documentary on a gang activity did not defame a prison inmate, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reports.

On July 25, the Dallas Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that journalist Carla Main’s book “Bulldozed: ‘Kelo,’ Eminent Domain and the American Lust for Land” did not defame a local land developer and was protected as “electronic or print media,” which granted the court power to hear and dismiss the case. Analysts said the suit against the book – which narrates an agreement between the businessman and a Texas city to take a seafood company’s private land for development – was a SLAPP or “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” which is not meant to be victorious but to silence critics.

Starting in September 2011, Texas law will have several anti-SLAPP provisions that make it easier for journalists to dismiss libel suits and counter-sue, the Citizen Media Law Project explains. 27 other states have similar laws.

At a separate trial in Denver, a federal appellate court’s July 19 ruling upheld the dismissal of a defamation suit against the A&E TV network for a documentary that claimed a prisoner was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood gang. While the court ruled the prisoner was not a member of the gang, the statement was considered “substantially true,” as he had conspired with and aided the group.

On July 13, this feature of U.S. libel law was also used by the Atlanta Court of Appeals to dismiss a libel suit against journalists at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (ACJ) for reporting that security guard Richard Jewell was a bombing suspect. Jewell was initially hailed as a hero for discovering explosives at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, but reports that he was considered a suspect led the media to hound him over the case. He was later cleared and won out-of-court settlements with CNN and ABC, but the court’s ruling found that he the ACJ’s reports were “substantially true at the time they were published—even though the investigators’ suspicions were ultimately deemed unfounded.”

These principles that protect U.S. media workers from libel suits are less common in Latin America and the Caribbean, where “desacato” or “disrespect” laws can be used to jail journalists for critical opinions even if those statements are considered true, explains an Inter American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) report. Recently in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa used that law to successfully convict employees of El Universo newspaper to three years in prison each and $40 million in fines. Journalists in Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru are some of those who have been fined, jailed, or censored due to defamation suits this year. However, Peru has moved closer to decriminalizing libel by passing a bill awaiting the president’s signature that replaces prison time for defamation offenses with fines and community service.

Other signs that countries are moving towards U.S.-style libel jurisprudence are rulings this week that dismissed slander cases in Panama and El Salvador, in which the court decisions used the concept of "actual malice" - which requires a publisher to have knowingly misinformed to be guilty of defamation.


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