Libel suit raises questions about accountability online

A Mexican bank sues a journalist who is reporting on the drug war for statements on the bank's chief.

Four years ago, veteran journalist Al Giordano moved for security reasons to an undisclosed location in Mexico to write firsthand on the drug war.

Last Friday, he found himself in a small, crowded courtroom in New York facing defamation charges filed by Banco Nacional de Mexico, also known as Banamex.

From Mr. Giordano's perspective, this is a new front line in the fight against powerful drug traffickers. From the bank's perspective, it's a question of maintaining integrity.

Either way, Internet and legal scholars say it is a potentially precedent-setting case that raises fundamental questions about free speech in the globalized world of cyberspace, as well as the role of the independent journalists in a media world increasingly controlled by corporate giants.

"The case ... presents two issues that will play a key role in determining the viability of online, independent journalism," according to Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of Giordano et al. "[One is] the ability of foreign plaintiffs to forum shop abusively, subjecting online, independent journalists to foreign laws ... and [two, is] the freedom of online journalists to republish articles on the Internet from publications in the offline realm without unreasonably being subjected to liability."

Giordano's alleged offenses occurred at a Columbia Law School forum, in two press interviews (one with The Village Voice), and on his website. What he did was repeat allegations that the head of Mexico's most powerful bank was involved with narco-trafficking and money laundering. His statements were based on stories about cocaine trafficking written by Mario Menendez, a Mexican journalist.

Banamex is also suing Mr. Menendez in New York. Three similar defamation cases brought by the bank against him in Mexico were dismissed.

"This is a harassment suit, this is a slap suit. They cannot win this suit," said Giordano outside the State Supreme Court building. "They only hope to drag it on and on to stop me and Mario Menendez from reporting on the truth of the corrupt drug war."

The bank's attorney says the cases in Mexico were dismissed on a technicality and that the substance of the allegations against Banamex's CEO Roberto Hernandez are untrue.

"Banamex is a largely privately owned bank that does millions of dollars of business in New York," Banamex's attorney Tom McLish told the judge last week. "Mr. Menendez [and Giordano] came to New York specifically to defame Banamex by claiming its chairman is a narco-trafficker and money launderer."

Mr. McLish, of the Washington law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, said the allegations make the Banamex chairman vulnerable to charges he violated the federal "drug kingpin law," and his assets in the US could be frozen and seized.

Menendez and Giordano, who researched the story independently, stand by their assertions about the Banamex chairman. Last Friday, they asked the court to dismiss all charges.

Giordano, an investigative journalist who used to work for The Boston Phoenix, moved to Mexico to expose what he believes is the complicity between some legitimate businesses and government officials and the drug traffickers. "You know the movie 'Traffic'?" he says. "I live that every day."

Giordano's website, Narconews.com, is also being sued, because it posted a translated version of one of Menendez's stories on the Banamex chairman. The lawyer who represents the site contends it is inappropriate for the Mexican bank to bring charges in New York.

"This site emanates from Mexico," says

attorney Tom Lesser. "It has nothing to do with New York. Its focus is the drug war, the ramifications of the drug war, and politics in Latin America."

Banamex attorney McLish says New York is the appropriate venue, because statements were made here and Narconews.com is registered to a post-office box in New York. "It would make no sense to sue somewhere else for false statements they were made in New York to New York audiences," says McLish.

But Giordano, who is representing himself, says the statements made in New York were "protected opinions" based on specific facts. The website, in addition, is registered here only to protect his safety. He insists that Banamex is suing in New York only because it failed in its attempts to discredit the stories in Mexico.

"If the National Bank of Mexico can sue journalists in Mexico for telling the truth, there are 1.4 billion websites on this planet earth that can be dragged into New York, the most expensive court jurisdiction and the most backlogged in the world," he says. "That would have a chilling effect."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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