London libel dispute brings press freedom issue to Md. court

September 09, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

An international dispute will bring lawyers for some of the nation's top news organizations to Maryland's highest court today to argue that freedom of the press will be threatened if U.S. journalists are forced to pay libel judgments won in foreign courts.

The case centers on Vladimir Matusevitch, who saw his father dragged off to a Soviet gulag when he was a child and his family and their Moscow neighbors harassed, all for being Jewish.

Matusevitch, now a U.S. citizen who lives in Bethesda, was infuriated after he read a column in the London Daily Telegraph in 1984 complaining that the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Russian Service had hired too many ethnic minorities from the Soviet Union.

His letter to the editor in response led to the $400,000 libel judgment in London that has reached Annapolis.

If Matusevitch is required to pay, it will encourage other plaintiffs to go after U.S. news media in foreign courts, where libel laws offer fewer press protections, said Laura R. Handman, a New York lawyer hired by several organizations, including Cable News Network Inc., the New York Times Co., the Washington Post, Dow Jones & Co., which owns the Wall Street Journal, and Times Mirror Co., which owns The Sun.

"They don't have a constitution there, they don't have a First Amendment and that makes all the difference in the world," she said.

The columnist who incurred Matusevitch's wrath, Vladimir Telnikoff, sued Matusevitch for calling him a "racialist" in a letter to the editor printed in the 3-million circulation Daily Telegraph Feb. 18, 1984.

A British jury awarded Telnikoff about $400,000 in 1992, and Telnikoff filed suit in the United States a year later to have the judgment enforced.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled for Matusevitch on Jan. 27, 1995. But Telnikoff's lawyers appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where a three-judge panel heard oral arguments March 7.

Federal judges transferred the case to Maryland's highest court March 15 to decide whether recognizing a foreign judgment would "violate Maryland public policy."

"The principle at stake here is more than just one libel judgment. It's this man is being penalized for expressing his opinion in a letter to the editor that in this country would have passed unnoticed," said Arnon D. Siegel, a Washington lawyer representing Matusevitch without charge.

Telnikoff's lawyer, Forrest A. Hainline III, declined to comment.

Telnikoff, 59, a Russian-born Israeli citizen who lives in London, says in court papers that Matusevitch's letter labeled him a racist and an anti-Semite, ruined his reputation and forced him to leave journalism and accept lower-paid work as an interpreter.

It also hurt his social life, transforming him "from a celebrity into a zombie" and breaking up his engagement, he said.

"The telephone stopped ringing. Letters stopped coming. Obviously with this sort of accusation, it is not that I lost a job; I became virtually unemployable," Telnikoff told the High Court of London in his 1992 testimony.

Telnikoff, who was jailed as an agitator in Russia during the reign of Nikita Khrushchev, said he never would have sued if Matusevitch had agreed to write a letter of apology.

But Matusevitch, 60, who was chief of the London bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty at the time the article was published, said last week that he has no intention of apologizing.

"If somebody, under threat, wanted you to write a letter admitting to being a thief and a liar when you weren't, would you write such a letter?" asked Matusevitch.

He blames British libel law, saying it favors those who sue and discourages public comment.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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