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World Science Journalists Object to English Libel Laws

Sense About Science | 3 July 2009

Nadia el-Awady (centre), elected president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, with the new board
Nadia el-Awady (centre), elected president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, with the new board

By Sile Lane

ENGLISH LIBEL laws have become an international menace. More than 500 journalists from around the world have joined a call to keep libel laws out of science and to urge changes in the English law, which has a wider jurisdiction than most, fewer defences and much higher costs. These force people threatened with libel to settle rather than defend themselves and have led to cases being brought in the London courts instead of in the countries where material is written and published.

Their concerns were raised at the opening of the World Conference of Science Journalists in London yesterday, where the Board of the World Federation of Science Journalists, representing 40 associations of science writers, broadcasters and press officers internationally, issued a statement in light of the recent case brought by the British Chiropractic Association against science writer Simon Singh:

“The World Federation of Science Journalists supports the freedom of science journalists to report social, medical and scientific issues in an evidence-based manner. The WFSJ deplores the targeting of individual science journalists by such means as libel or any means other than full and frank discussion in a public forum.”

Simon Singh told the 800 assembled journalists and science writers that being sued has put his career on hold for a year and has so far run up costs of 100,000 pounds. He said that, following international publicity about his case, he has been contacted by people around the world who have been threatened with libel action in London, where the libel laws offer fewer defences.

Pallab Ghosh, President of the Federation, said: “Critical freedom in science journalism is particularly an issue in developing and emerging countries when inappropriate use of untested remedies is dangerous and potentially costing people’s lives.”

Wilson da Silva, editor-in-chief of Cosmos Magazine in Australia, a former president and current member of the Federation board who drafted the statement of support, added : “Science journalists, like Simon Singh, have a responsibility to question scientific claims and subject them to scrutiny. To sue for libel the journalists who question beliefs and challenge claims is an abuse of the judicial process. The courts are not the place to settle such matters – unless you’re afraid that the facts are not on your side.”

British science writer Simon Singh

Comments from delegates:

Robyn Williams, producer and presenter, ABC Radio, Australia: “The law has intruded destructively in medicine for too long, risking the health of the patient and the capacity of doctors to do their work well. Now it is limiting free speech - with the same consequences. This must stop.”

Peter Calamai, magazine writer, Ottawa, Canada: “UK libel laws are antiquated and need reform.”

James Handman, executive producer, CBC Radio, Toronto, Canada: “England’s libel laws are insane.”

Michael Malakata, IBG News Service, Lusaka, Zambia: “Libel laws hinder journalists from carrying out their work objectively.”

Muhammad Suhail Yousuf, Health reporter, METROone television, Pakistan: “Simon Singh’s case is not merely an issue of sue, fine and court. It is part of the struggle between science and pseudoscience.”

Celia Kozlowski, Freelance Science Writer, USA: “I found the Singh case utterly appalling. It could seriously undermine scientific debate and the free exchange of ideas in Britain and the world.”

Chris Smith, The Naked Scientist podcast and scientist: “These sorts of actions are thoroughly anti-freedom of speech. Science is all about debate and a climate of fear is not the way to stimulate informed questioning of science.”

Seth Shulman, Massachusetts, USA: “As a US-based author writing about science, I urge the British authorities to reconsider their current libel laws.”

Jon Torkelsson, reporter, Swedish National Radio, Stockholm: “English libel laws are dangerous and unacceptable.”

Hepeng Jia, editor in chief, Science News Biweekly, Beijing, China: “Science should stand far away from libel, but the threat of libel should not be used against critical or negative reporting.”

Chretienne Vuijst, freelance science journalist, Rotterdam, Netherlands: “Singh’s court case will have a major impact on all European countries, including the Netherlands. Dutch science journalists could also be accused for criticising alternative therapies and so on.”

Ifeoma Ndefo, Abuja, Nigeria: “Science journalism helps development and should be free of inhibitions.”

International threat to press freedom

Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science, coordinating Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign, said: “Our stand at the conference was crowded with journalists saying that their press freedoms, from Estonia to Kenya, were hard-won; they were shocked to find that the English libel laws are so restrictive and could even be used against them for what they write and publish in other parts of the world.”

Safaa Kanj, editor and journalism trainer, Cairo, Egypt: “In the Middle East, journalists already practice self-censorship, especially when they disagree with the government position concerning a specific issue: the swine flu case in Egypt is a recent example.”

Justa Wawira, KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kenya: “In Kenya, reporters are being jailed and the newspapers and media are being slammed with hefty fines.”

Mabutho Ngcobo, Reporter, ETV, South Africa: “In South Africa, we had a big problem of pseudo scientists who claim to heal HIV. When journalists wrote about them, they became threatening.”


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