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Defamation reforms to be enacted by summer

MAJOR Government legislation reforming the State's libel laws should be enacted by the summer, it was confirmed last night.

Nineteen months after the Defamation Bill was published, the legislation finally left the Seanad yesterday, after residing there since December 2006.

Last night, a spokesman said the Government was determined to have the bill passed into law before the Dail adjourns for its summer recess, in July. The Government is under pressure to pass the 2006 legislation in order to make the newly established Press Council as effective as possible.

Moves to finally debate and pass the legislation also follow the high-profile case of Martin McDonagh who was recently awarded €900,000 by a jury for damage to his reputation as a result of a newspaper article.

Last week, the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) called for the immediate enactment of the bill, arguing that laws and procedures had been substantially reformed with the exception of defamation.

Yesterday, during a lengthy debate on the laws in the Seanad, Independent Senator Eoghan Harris said he had been astounded in recent weeks by the "absolute determination of politicians of all parties to trammel and limit, in every niggling way, the work of the press."

"The reality of life is that none of the activities of the rogue solicitors, rogue capitalists, gangsters and criminals, who have names such as 'the Viper' and 'the Tosser', and whom Paul Williams has been exposing for years, would have been exposed if the politicians had their way," he said.

Freedom

"Politicians, who comprise one of the most litigious and sensitive groups, should be particularly careful not to convey the impression to the public that they are trying to trammel the press further."

Mr Harris concluded that, provided there was genuine freedom of the press, an adequate apology system and adequate freedom of discourse, politicians should take a "bit more of the rough with the smooth and stop trying to crush press freedoms."

Senator David Norris said one of the reservations he had about the proposed legislation centred on the defence of "honest opinion", because someone could honestly believe something untrue.

"It is not enough to say that one thought it was true and believed Old Joe because he is a decent bloke and put it in a newspaper," he said.

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Mr Norris said he was against the concepts of "honest opinion" and the related matter of "good faith", adding that what is broadcast or printed should be, in fact, true.

However, Labour's Alex White said the widest possible latitude must be given in respect of the publication of "opinion consistent with fundamental principles". He claimed the law should continue to give a wide latitude to the expression of "honestly held opinions".

Under the proposed bill, newspapers and broadcasters will have to give an apology as much space and prominence as the original article. The media will be able to offer the defence of "fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest".


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