Wen Jiabao's family 'unlikely to sue' New York Times
Threat of legal action for defamation over report of 'hidden wealth' is only a gesture, experts say
Legal action threatened against The New York Times by two mainland law firms representing the family of Premier Wen Jiabao is unlikely to occur in the near future as the potential consequences would be detrimental to the premier, experts say.
In a statement on Saturday night, two lawyers who say they represent the Wen family, said: "We will continue to make clarifications regarding untrue reports by The New York Times, and reserve the right to hold it legally responsible." The US newspaper published an article about the family's alleged growing wealth during his tenure.
Wang Weidong, managing partner of the Beijing office of the Grandall Law Firm and one of the two lawyers, told the South China Morning Post yesterday that he and Bai Tao, a partner in the Beijing office of the Jun He Law Firm, had "issued the statement on [the Wen family's] behalf".
He Weifang, a law expert at Peking University, said the statement was more of a gesture than a substantial legal document. "It was a demonstration of the attitude of a single party [the Wen family], intended to show the Chinese public that [The New York Times] report wasn't factually correct," He said.
If the Wen family does take the Times to court, it could be a formidable undertaking.
"Then the case would get bigger … and even out of control," He said. "Based on this rationale, I reckon it's not likely [the Wen family] would sue The Times."
Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The Times, said in an e-mail to the Post: "We are standing by our story, which we are incredibly proud of and which is an example of the quality investigative journalism The Times is known for."
Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing-based civil rights lawyer specialising in press freedom and defamation cases, said the statement was more like a declaration of innocence. "It's understandable why the family asked the lawyers to make the statement, but to me it didn't say anything. It's more like a public oath or some act of public relations."
Pu added the denials in the statement were "very weak" and that it would be difficult to succeed in any court action against The Times if the family did not produce substantial evidence.
"Whatever the potential scenario is, it would be detrimental to Wen," Pu said.
Mo Shaoping, another Beijing-based rights lawyer, said the timing for legal action was not good.
"It's very difficult to judge [from the statement] if the Wen family would sue the paper," Mo said, adding that any lawsuit would have to wait until after the 18th party congress.
Mo, who represented former Times researcher Zhao Yan who was accused of leaking state secrets, said if the lawsuit took place in China, it would be hard for The Times to win.
"They [the Times] would have to unveil their sources and - even if they do that - the authorities would have the power and try to make the sources deny their earlier comments to the paper."
A defamation lawsuit is hugely different under Chinese law compared with the US, he added. In America, it is hard for an official or public figure to win a libel lawsuit against the media as the constitution protects freedom of speech. In China, if the press cannot prove every single fact in the story, it is subject to libel, Mo said.
He, of Peking University, said in recent memory a top party leader had never brought a defamation or libel suit to court.