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Friday, 20 July, 2001, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Drugs case tests net boundaries
cocaine AP
A policeman guards a drug shipment seizure
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

A libel case in New York could test the freedom of speech enjoyed by online journalists and activists.

The legal action has been launched by the National Bank of Mexico against the New York-based Narco News website.

Before now, organisations that dispute or dislike information published about them on webpages sitting outside national boundaries have had little chance of stopping the information circulating.

But if the bank succeeds in pursuing its case beyond Mexico, legal experts say other organisations may be tempted to try the same tactics - and it could restrict free speech.

Libel law

The court case revolves around allegations made about Roberto Hernandez Ramirez, the general director of Banamex, and his alleged links to the drugs trade.

The allegations were initially made in a series of 15 articles by Mario Menendez and were first aired in Mexican newspaper Por Esto! in 1997.

So far, Mexican courts have thrown out libel actions brought by Banamex three times.

The bank took the opportunity to launch fresh legal action when the Narco News website, which is hosted by a net provider in New York, reprinted some of Menendez's articles.

Legal experts have described the case as an example of "forum shopping" in which a defendant sues in the country it thinks will produce the most favourable verdict.

The new libel claim was filed late last month. It said the Narco News website, its editor Al Giordano, as well as Mr Menendez were guilty of libel.

The case is due to go to the New York Supreme Court on 20 July.

Net implications

Ostensibly, Banamex has launched its libel action because Mr Giordano and Mr Menendez repeated the allegations in lectures and radio interviews held during a New York publicity tour and not just because Narco News is hosted in the city.

Banamex claims it can launch legal action in New York because of its affiliation with an organisation called The Media Channel, which is also based in the city.

Lawyers for Narco News said some of their defence hinged on proving that the affiliation was too weak for Banamex to claim jurisdiction in the US.

The case has implications for freedom of speech on the net because Banamex has been able to reach beyond the national boundaries of Mexico to suppress information.

Before now, the global spread of the net has largely defeated attempts to restrict the spread of information on it.

Many fear that if Banamex wins its case, free speech could be restricted because powerful corporations will be able to launch gagging orders against websites anywhere in the world publishing information they would rather not see aired.

See also:

02 May 00 | Sci/Tech
US backs net free speech
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