Dmitry Firtash, the University donor who attempted to use his Cambridge donations to allow ‘libel tourism’, had his case thrown out of UK courts yesterday. Firtash, a Ukrainian billionaire, had attempted to sue the Ukrainian Kyiv Post for libel.
As Varsity reported last month, Firtash’s solicitor attempted to justify bringing the case to English courts by citing his donations to the University’s Department of Slavonic Studies, which fund the Cambridge Ukrainian Studies programme, as well as the fact that he had once dined with the Queen.
Master Leslie, at the Royal Courts of Justice, said that Mr Firtash’s connections with the UK were “tenuous in the extreme”. The donations to Cambridge University formed a significant part of Firtash’s lawyers argument, Varsity was told. The defence, on behalf of the Kyiv Post, argued that this would set a disturbing precedent, whereby one could buy UK court hearings with university donations.
Master John Leslie, who presided over the case said that it was “almost” an abuse of process. The lawsuit concerned the Kyiv Post’s publication of an article online about Ukraine’s natural gas sector, which Mr Firtash, through his company the GDF group, is financially involved in.
Following the article, Firtash issued libel proceedings in London against the Kyiv Post. In order to justify their being heard in England, Firtash’s solicitor claimed that Firtash was a “prominent businessman who lives in Ukraine but also enjoys a reputation in the UK”.
The editor of the Kyiv Post, Brian Bonner, said that he was “very pleased” with the ruling, and hoped that it would give impetus to libel law changes that would “strengthen free speech and curb the practice of ‘libel tourism’”.
He said that the Kyiv Post had “repeated [their] offer to Dmitry Firtash to tell his side of the story or tell [them] what is wrong with the article in question”, but had not received a response. Jonathan Heawood, the director of English PEN, said that “This is obviously good news for free speech, but the libel chill still remains.
“This phenomena of libel tourism is a form of legal harassment, which discourages responsible investigative journalists from speaking the truth to [those in] power.” The judge did allow for an appeal of the libel action, which was brought by Firtash against Public Media, publishers of the Kyiv Post.
As a result, the newspaper has not lifted its block on traffic from the UK, which has been in place since the 14th December, in protest at “draconian libel laws there that hinder legitimate free speech and threaten the work of independent journalists, authors, scientists and others worldwide”. The paper said that it would wait to see if the ruling was appealed by Firtash’s lawyers before removing the block.
On the 28th March, the Kyiv Post removed the block, after the period in which appeals were allowed elapsed. Though the Ukrainian newspaper has not opened the original story, 'Gas trade leaves trail of lawsuits, corruption', at the advice of their lawyers, this represents the closure of the possibility of libel proceedings, in this case, in the UK.
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