Covington & Burling leads Middle East to a free press

Like other Americans of late, Covington & Burling's London managing partner Kurt Wimmer is about to take his first steps into the Middle East.

Wimmer leads the pro bono efforts of the London office with a zeal that can only be attributed to his previous life as a trainee journalist, before (his words) “turning to the dark side”. Since the early 1990s, Wimmer and his team have battled to create the legal framework for a free press in post-communist Eastern Europe, and they are now turning their attention to the Middle East.

The first foray into Eastern Europe came from the American Bar Association, but the extended pro bono efforts in this arena really began in 1995. The International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that receives US State Department funding to undertake media law and independent media advocacy, asked Covington to send an expert to Bulgaria to study its new media law.

Since then the work has flowed in from IREX and other NGOs.

Wimmer's biggest success was in Bosnia. Because there had been a war, under the Dayton Accord, the UN had the power to strike out inadequate laws and create new ones. Wimmer sat on a UN commission that drafted a new defamation law and a freedom of information law. “We drafted a defamation law, which I think is the most speech-protected in Europe,” says Wimmer. “We actually got to create something and then have it adopted, as opposed to getting a draft and criticising it and having to twist arms to get people to change it.”

Efforts have been made to promote a free media in 19 countries, including Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Slovakia, Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Mongolia. Success has been tempered with frustration and sadness. One of Wimmer's journalist contacts in Serbia, for example, was assassinated after refusing to bow to Milosevic's censor.

While there is still work to be done in Europe, and Serbia is an ongoing frustration, Wimmer is now looking at the Middle East. “It will be difficult because it requires such a change in mindset,” he says.

He is hoping that Iraq will follow the Bosnian model, because it was the Bosnians rather than the Western European experts who demanded a truly free media. Wimmer says: “The only way you can have sustainable change in the region is if you have a country approving the changes. If it's proposed externally then it's just not persuasive.” The firm

The Lawyer verdict

The firm has been proactive about its pro bono effort internationally, which is what makes its Eastern Europe work so exceptional. It has a strong commitment to pro bono across a broad range of areas and lays down the gauntlet for other firms.

Covington & Burling's pro bono work is coordinated by Jan Flack, the firm's full-time pro bono coordinator based in the Washington DC head office. Flack is not a qualified lawyer, but has a full-time assistant who is. Tony Herman, a partner in the DC office, is chairman of the firm's public service committee.

In 2002, there were 162 partners and of counsel who billed 50 or more pro bono hours. In addition, 265 associates billed 50 or more pro bono hours. With secretaries and other support staff joining the pro bono effort, the firm recorded a total of 66,208 pro bono hours. A large proportion of this was in the civil rights/civil liberties area. The firm is representing death row prisoners in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Virginia and elsewhere. Covington is also involved in the landmark Pigford et al v Veneman in the US, which claims that black farmers are denied the subsidies given to their white counterparts.

After the 11 September attacks, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani asked Covington to take the lead role in providing pro bono legal advice to the families of firefighters, police officers and other public servants who lost their lives.