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Reporter seeks U.N. help in Net case

An American journalist who's facing trial in Australia over an article posted on a U.S.-based Web site is taking his fight to the United Nations.

An American journalist who's facing trial in Australia over an article posted on a U.S.-based Web site is taking his fight to the United Nations.

Bill Alpert, a reporter for Barron's, is asking the United Nations to find that Australia violated his free-speech rights by ordering him to stand trial under the defamation laws of that country after he wrote an investigative article about a prominent Australian businessman.

The case is being closely watched by free-speech experts because it highlights the difficulties of deciding jurisdictional matters on the Web. The issue at the heart of the case is whether material on the Internet can be subject to the laws of every country that has citizens who have access to it.

"That could chill or gag reporters anywhere," Alpert said.

The saga started after Alpert wrote a piece in 2000 about Joseph Gutnick, an Australian who made his fortune in mining and other ventures, detailing his business dealings and saying some of them "raise uncomfortable questions."

After the piece appeared in print and on a U.S.-based Web site, Gutnick sued Alpert and his employer, Dow Jones, in Australia, alleging the piece contained libelous information. Alpert and Dow Jones responded by challenging the notion that an Australian judge could have jurisdiction over the case because the article had only a limited circulation in that country. But the judge refused to dismiss the case. Alpert and Dow Jones appealed that ruling to higher Australian courts but also lost in those forums; judges said a person has a right to defend himself in the location where an article about him was published. Now, a trial on the merits of the case is scheduled for November in an Australian court.

Many free-speech advocates consider the Australian court's decision a blow for freedom of expression. They fear it could encourage other people who are the subject of hard-hitting reporting to shop for a forum where it's easy to prove defamation. Australian's defamation laws are much stricter than those in the United States. The case also has sent a message to publishers of all types that they may have to consider the laws in the regions where their content may appear, especially those regions where the subject of their material may live or work.

Now that he's exhausted his channels for appeal in Australia, Alpert has petitioned the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, arguing that the decision requiring him to stand trial in Australia violates free-speech rights guaranteed by the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In his petition, Alpert said that because of the Australian court's decision to hear the case, he "must defend his article, lawful when written and published in the United States, by traveling to Australia and being subjected to an alien legal and curial process which does not respect freedom of expression."

The United Nations is gathering information from both Alpert and Australian officials to determine whether the journalist's rights have been violated and whether that country will have to tailor its laws to comply with the civil rights treaty.