Urgent need for enactment of new defamation Bill, say ombudsman and industry groups – The Irish Times

Urgent need for enactment of new defamation Bill, say ombudsman and industry groups – The Irish Times
Urgent need for enactment of new defamation Bill, say ombudsman and industry groups – The Irish Times

The current law on defamation “has a chilling effect on the ability of the press to investigate and expose social and political wrongdoing,” and needs to be updated, the Press Ombudsman Susan McKay has said in a statement issued to mark World Press Freedom Day on Friday.

Ms McKay asked the Government “to listen to urgent calls from members of the Press Council and ensure that the long-awaited defamation Bill is included in the current legislative programme”.

“At a time when Press Council members are already struggling due to diminished income and the voracity of unregulated social media platforms,” she said, “even the threat of a defamation suit could lead to costs capable of sinking a publication. “This is bad for the freedom of the press and bad for democracy.”

A coalition of national and local newspaper and website editors has, meanwhile, written to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice to ask that publication and enforcement of the defamation Bill be prioritized.

According to the group “it is crucial that the reforms, now prioritized by Government, be implemented as quickly as possible and, certainly, within the likely limited legislative time frame of the current Dáil”.

The general scheme of the Bill recommends the abolition of juries in defamation cases, something industry groups, Newsbrands Ireland and Local Ireland suggest is a key change.

“Jury trials are unpredictable, time-consuming and costly,” they say. “Several jury awards, giving damages greatly in excess of those available in severe personal injury actions, have served to bring the legal system into disrepute. “A reasoned decision by a judge brings predictability to the process and chimes with the need for greater openness and transparency in public life.”

The Bill also contains proposals for a “serious harm test” but envisages that it be applied only to cases involving companies, public authorities and retailers. The industry bodies want the test applied in all cases, arguing it “would act as a deterrent to vexatious claims and alleviate the risks to Ireland associated with ‘libel tourism’”.

“All claimants,” they say, “have the option to have their case considered by the Office of the Press Ombudsman, including those who do not meet the serious harm test.”

Ms McKay, meanwhile, said she also wanted “to note that there can be no press freedom where journalists are threatened with violence. “In recent times we have seen journalists in this country being threatened and harassed as they do their work of reporting.”

 
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