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Tunisia's Ghannouchi wins libel case following online smear campaign

Leader of the En-Nahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi in Tunis, Tunisia 29 July 2019 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]
Leader of the Ennahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi in Tunis, Tunisia 29 July 2019 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

The UK's High Court of Justice has ruled in favour of Tunisia politician and co-founder of Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi in a libel case against Middle East Online (MEO) and one of its editors, the law firm representing his case has said.

Judge Matthew Nicklin ruled in favour of Ghannouchi's lawsuit in a default judgement late yesterday after the defendants failed to file a defence.

Mathilde Groppo, an Associate at Carter-Ruck Solicitors who represented Ghannouchi, told MEMO, the libel lawsuit was filed in December 2019, months after an article, published by MEO on 5 July 2019, alleged the Ennahdha party was a front for a terrorist organisation.

The piece, which has now been deleted, claimed Ghannouchi pretended to believe in democracy while actively encouraging and supporting terrorism in Tunisia and abroad and had accepted funds from Qatar, which, MEO suggested, had allowed the Gulf country to exert improper influence over Tunisian politics.

READ: Tunisians protest over jobs amid economic downturn

Ghannouchi, co-founder of the Ennahda party and speaker of parliament in Tunisia since November 2019, vigorously denied the claims, and said he was not approached for comment before the defamatory statements were published.

Groppo said: "The allegations were fairly serious … shown in the fact that the defendants did not engage with us… [Ghannouchi's] view is that it shows they didn't have a defence and that's why they failed to provide one."

Adding, a hearing to determine damages and costs to be paid by MEO is set for 10 June. In a comment sent to MEMO, MEO said: "It is a default judgment [sic] as we decided not to fight the case in principle. We believe it has to do with freedom of speech by the author of the article. Mr Ghannouchi decided to fight it here [in the UK] which he considered a favorable ground, rather than in his own country."

The Tunisian politician, a long-time client of Carter-Ruck, has frequently filed libel and defamation lawsuits with the firm. Ghannouchi has successfully sued publications including Al Arabiya Arabic and Michel Lafon Publishing, among others, which have claimed he is an Islamic extremist with links to Al Qaeda and that Ennahda has received international funding in violation of Tunisian law.

READ: Tunisia: Efforts in parliament to cancel investment agreement with UAE 

As early as March 2003, Ghannouchi was awarded £61,000 ($75,300) in damages in a libel case against London-based Arabic daily newspaper, Al-Arab, while in 2013, the Tunisian politician received an apology and "a substantial sum in damages" from the BBC.

Simultaneously, this week, Anadolu's Agency's Qatar correspondent, Ahmed Yusuf, called attention to what he termed, "a systematic campaign" against Ghannouchi from media backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt.

Yusuf claimed media outlets headquartered in the three countries have been publishing "simultaneous deceitful news" in order to "tarnish [Ghannouchi's] image and provoke a storm in his country".

The law firm's press release said Ghannouchi had instructed Carter-Ruck "to launch further legal action against false allegations reproduced in other publications… [and] he will not hesitate to take legal action against any further defamatory statements".

When asked about future lawsuits, Groppo said she was not at liberty to disclose details, but implied she was aware of upcoming cases.

UPDATE: At 15:40 (GMT+1) on 29 May 2020 MEO's comment was added to the piece  

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