Libel laws threatening public interest reporting, INM warns
Ireland's outdated libel laws need to be overhauled to uphold the freedom of the press, Independent News & Media (INM) has said in a submission to a statutory review being conducted by the Department of Justice.
The media group said the review of the Defamation Act 2009 was "a golden opportunity" to bring our defamation laws into line with the rest of the EU and to end the chilling effect excessive damages awards are having on public interest journalism.
The submission said the act was outdated in a number of important respects and did not serve democracy well.
It called for an abolition of juries for defamation trials, a limitation on damages, clarity on liability for user-generated comment and the introduction of a "serious harm" threshold.
INM, which employs around 1,000 people, publishes four national newspapers including the Irish Independent, and three news websites including independent.ie.
In its submission, it said deficiencies in the existing act had given Ireland a reputation abroad as a place where defamation pay-outs and associated legal costs had "lost the run of themselves". It warned Ireland could become a destination of choice for libel tourism.
The submission cited the example of Hollywood stars Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, who used the High Court in Dublin to sue the European edition of 'Heat' magazine, even though it is published by a German company and Ireland was not the magazine's biggest European market.
The case was subsequently settled out of court.
The submission argued adequate and effective safeguards against disproportionate libel awards were urgently needed.
INM also said any reform of the act should encourage complainants to seek redress through the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
It said grossly excessive defamation awards were a disproportionate financial burden for news organisations at a time when the very viability of funding for public interest journalism was under threat.
Although the 2009 Act allows judges to give more directions to juries on the assessment of damages, this had only brought about limited changes and libel awards still remain higher in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe, the submission said.
"Awards made in Ireland are wholly out of kilter with other jurisdictions, including the UK, where effectively a cap of £275,000 (€305,000) exists, though the reality is that awards rarely exceed £100,000 (€110,700)," it said.
The Supreme Court's award of €1.25m to communications consultant Monica Leech was approximately 10 times higher than would have been made in the UK, the submission said.
"In France and Belgium damages are frequently awarded in symbolic values only (ie €1). In the Netherlands, the average is between €1,000 and €5,000; €25,000 would be seen as an extremely high amount.
"In Sweden, the highest awards will usually be the equivalent of €10,000 to €15,000."