Threat of libel action drives website abroad

Durham: is moving site to Denmark

An investigative journalist has been forced to move his website abroad because the libel laws mean no British internet company will host it.

Michael Durham said the contentious parts of his website, about Danish youth group Svind, were not even libellous. But UK web-hosters appear to have a policy of immediately dropping sites if they receive a lawyer’s letter.

Durham is now moving his site to Denmark, where – unlike in Britain – the author of the site, rather than the company hosting it, is liable under defamation law.

A former Fleet Street journalist who has worked at The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Observer and The Daily Telegraph, Durham launched the Svind-Alert site in 2000. He claims it has played a key role in the arrest and trial of several leaders of the group for fraud.

Svind is a multimillion-pound charity that runs dozens of schools across the world and encourages young people to join as volunteers. It has been described as an extreme leftwing cult and volunteers have complained of brainwashing after handing over their life savings to the group.

A clothes recycling scheme Svind ran in the UK was closed down after a Charities Commission investigation.

Durham, who is currently a freelance feature writer, said he was first forced to close his website in April after London-based internet firm The Hosting Company received a legal letter from a Svind member. The man was working in China and wanted all references to him on the site deleted.

Durham said: “I received a letter saying it is not the policy of any hosting to company to fight any kind of legal action. It doesn’t matter if there is any basis in the allegation or not. Hosting companies simply roll over the minute they get a solicitor’s letter.”

He moved the site to 123-Reg, but was forced to close it again two weeks ago because the same individual gave 123-Reg a legal warning. Durham is in the process of moving the site to Denmark and has found a Danish journalist who is willing to accept liability for it.

Durham said his website contained no allegations that have not appeared in a number of print publications in Britain and Denmark.

He said: “The implications are that in Britain there isn’t much freedom of expression on the internet. If somebody takes a dislike to what you’ve said about them, no matter how true it might be, you can just send a solicitor’s letter to an internet company and they will cave in.

“I haven’t even been told by anyone what the problem with the site is; I’ve just been told to remove it.”

Durham said his site has received 100,000 hits since it was set up and he has been sent up to 4,000 e-mails by people with first-hand experience of Svind.

Media lawyer Niri Shan of Taylor Wessing said web hosters were so cautious in the UK because of the “innocent defamation” defence available under the 1996 Defamation Act.

He said: “Most internet service providers have notify and take down procedures – as soon as they are notified of a complaint they take it down.

“The interesting thing from a journalist’s point of view is whether they can complain that the right to Freedom of Expression under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act has been breached. But it probably says under the terms and conditions that they have the right to take material down.”

By Dominic Ponsford

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