Wednesday 16 January 2019

€100,000 fines for contempt have 'chilling effect' on press freedom

Stock picture: Getty
Stock picture: Getty

Tim Healy

Fines of €100,000 imposed on Independent Newspapers and another company for contempt of court will have a "chilling" effect on reporting matters of important public interest, a court has heard.

Independent Newspapers has asked the Court of Appeal to overturn the fines imposed after a High Court judge ruled certain articles and commentary published in 2014 were a contempt of court.

The fines - €50,000 on Independent Newspapers and €50,000 on an associated company, Internet Interactions Ltd - are the highest ever for contempt and gave undue weight to the issue of deterrence, Cian Ferriter SC argued.

The High Court had found there was no intention to interfere with the course of justice, no adverse impact on the pending trial, and it was accepted the articles were on a subject of unique public interest.

He said in the circumstances the fines were disproportionate and will have a "chilling" effect on reporting matters of important public interest.

Counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions Paul O'Higgins SC argued the fines were warranted and there must be "meaningful" deterrents against contempt. It was of relevance the newspaper knew, prior to publication, a particular person referred to had been charged, he said. For legal reasons the content of the articles cannot be published at this stage.

A three-judge Court of Appeal, by a 2/1 majority last December, dismissed the company's appeal. The High Court said the articles, published after a particular person was charged, "gratuitously identified" and associated that person with particular types of behaviour relevant to charges to be considered by a jury.

In his dissenting ruling, Mr Justice Gerard Hogan said the articles made no reference to any pending criminal trials and did not make any direct suggestion of criminal conduct. They revealed no information directly concerned with the offences the individual was charged with.

Irish Independent

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