Tuesday 27 September 2016

Out-of-kilter defamation laws are 'damaging to freedom of the press'

Martin Grant

Published 03/05/2016 | 02:30

NewsBrands Ireland believes the current defamation laws are impacting the media’s role as a watchdog. Stock photo
NewsBrands Ireland believes the current defamation laws are impacting the media’s role as a watchdog. Stock photo

Defamation laws in Ireland remain out of kilter with the rest of Europe with the threat of much higher awards damaging press freedom, it was warned yesterday.

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NewsBrands Ireland, the body for the national newspaper industry, is highlighting the outdated and stringent laws.

It raised concerns about the level of awards made in defamation cases in Ireland, pointing out that awards here are much higher than the rest of Europe.

This has a "chilling effect" on the industry's important role as a watchdog.

The warning on Ireland's notoriously strict defamation laws and the "significant challenge" posed to freedom of expression has been issued to mark World Press Freedom Day.

The newspaper industry body is also highlighting concerns that defamation cases are heard by a jury.

NewsBrands Ireland pointed out that the decision of the Supreme Court to award €1.25m to communications consultant Monica Leech highlights the need for change.

She was originally awarded €1.87m in 2009 by a High Court jury over a series of articles in 2004 in the 'Evening Herald'.

In 2014, the jury's award was substituted with €1.25m at the Supreme Court.

"The decision of the Supreme Court to award €1.25m . . . puts Ireland wholly out of kilter with its neighbouring jurisdictions," said a spokesperson for NewsBrands Ireland. "The award is approximately ten times higher than would have been made in the UK," they added.

NewsBrands Ireland also highlighted the fact that Ireland is also the only country in Europe where defamation actions are heard before a jury.

In Britain, trials are held without a jury "unless the court orders otherwise".

NewsBrands Ireland believes the current defamation laws are affecting the media's role as a watchdog.

A spokesperson said: "The retention of the jury system creates delays and also a lack of certainty for publishers who have no way to ascertain the extent of their potential liability.

"As a result, many newspapers simply won't take the risk of publishing an article.

"This has a chilling effect on the media's role as the watchdog of the public.

"It is time for Ireland's defamation laws to be brought into line with the rest of Europe."

Irish Independent

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