NYT move to block Web to Britons raises questions

Reuters | August 30, 2006
By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York Times decision to block British online readers from seeing a story about London terrorism suspects raises new questions on restricting the flow of information in the Internet age, legal and media experts say.

The New York Times said on Tuesday it had blocked British Internet readers from seeing a story detailing elements of the investigation into a suspected plot to blow up airliners between Britain and the United States.

The story was published in Monday's paper. Under British laws, courts will punish media organizations that publish material that judges feel may influence jurors and prevent suspects receiving a fair trial. 

"There has not been a prosecution for contempt over anybody publishing outside this jurisdiction (Britain), but logically there is no reason why there should not be," said Caroline Kean, partner at UK media law firm Wiggin.

While restricting what British media can report has been effective in the past, the Internet has made it far harder to stop information published by foreign outlets, which may breach Britain's laws, from being seen by UK readers.

The New York Times article cited unnamed investigators providing information not given publicly by British police.

It detailed the content of martyrdom videos and bomb-making equipment found by police and said an attempt to blow up the airliners was not as imminent as authorities had suggested.

The same article appeared on the paper's Web site, http://www.nytimes.com, but readers in Britain who clicked on the headline received the notice "This Article Is Unavailable." 

"On advice of legal counsel, this article is unavailable to readers of nytimes.com in Britain. This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial," the notice said.


However British newspapers the Times and the Daily Mail also published details from the New York Times article this week.

A government source said no injunctions had been taken out against the British papers, but action could not be ruled out if details were in any future publications, closer to a trial date. 

"We're keeping it under careful, constant review," he said.

Because British courts may impose heavy fines and jail editors, foreign newspapers sometimes hold potentially sensitive stories out of their British print editions.

Media lawyer Mark Stephens of Finer, Stephens, Innocent said he could not see anything wrong with the blocked New York Times article and the decision by British papers to print similar details showed the contempt of court law may be the problem.

"It's probably unhelpful to have an area of law which is so uncertain where one set of lawyers is saying censor everything while another says there's nothing wrong with it," he said.

"Even by blocking you don't have the desired effect. You actually create an enhanced interest as the blocking becomes a story in itself, which fans the flames of curiosity," he said.

This was the first time the New York Times had targeted a readership and blocked it from seeing a story on the Web, as far as a spokeswoman and a lawyer from the paper could recall.

"The British take this very seriously and tend to attack publications for contempt even if the arguments that we would have made sounded fairly reasonable," George Freeman, a lawyer with the New York Times

Freeman said it was no guarantee that someone in Britain could not find the story.

"But our position is that we did what we could to prevent publication in Britain. If someone carries in on a jet plane a New York Times from New York, that's not our doing and we can't prevent that," Freeman said.

(Additional reporting by David Clarke and Michael Holden in London)