O'Brien's legal threats to media raised with UN
Rapporteur told of threats to sue journalists
Advocacy group Transparency International Ireland has raised the issue of businessman Denis O'Brien's ongoing legal threats against several journalists with a United Nations special rapporteur, it has emerged.
Chief executive of Transparency International (TI) Ireland John Devitt met with Margaret Sekaggya, UN special rapporteur, and he informed her of a series of legal threats made by Mr O'Brien against a number of political journalists and columnists, including former Irish Independent reporter Sam Smyth, Sunday Independent columnist and Trinity College lecturer Elaine Byrne and broadcaster Vincent Browne.
In response, a spokesman for Denis O'Brien said: "Every person has a right to protect their good name and reputation. This protection includes taking legal action.
"In the past the Sunday Independent has been successfully sued for libel. In the recent weeks the Sunday Independent has had to apologise to Mr Denis O'Brien to avoid being sued for libel.
"The Sunday Independent regularly publishes corrections, clarifications and apologies to individuals to avoid being sued for libel and defamation."
For the record, on October 21 the Sunday Independent published a 'Clarification' relating to Mr O'Brien and the Digicel Group. This corrected an incorrect statement that Ericsson was the sole supplier to Mr O'Brien's mobile phone operator, Digicel, in the Caribbean. Solicitors for Mr O'Brien and Digicel informed the Sunday Independent that Ericsson was not the sole supplier to Digical in those territories. The Sunday Independent was happy to publish this clarification. All newspapers regularly carry corrections and clarifications.
Mr O'Brien, who is the largest shareholder of Independent News and Media, publishers of the Sunday Independent, was accused by Mr Devitt of making threats against commentators and correspondents who covered the proceedings of the Moriarty Tribunal.
Mr Devitt told the UN that the tribunal had found that Mr O'Brien had made payments to the former minister for communications Michael Lowry, who in turn had "delivered" the award of the second mobile phone licence to Mr O'Brien's consortium Esat Digifone in 1996.
TI is calling on Mr O'Brien to withdraw his threats of legal action against journalists and newspapers and to seek redress for unfair coverage through the Press Council.
"The use of litigation and legal threats denies journalists and editors the human right to freely report on matters of public importance," Mr Devitt said. "Journalists have a duty to report or comment on issues in the public interest – even if they have a negative impact on Mr O'Brien's reputation," he added.
Mr Devitt said that while Mr O'Brien has a right to pursue his claims through the courts, the impact on individual journalists in trying to defend such claims could have the potential to be "ruinous to the journalist".
He added: "It is important, therefore, that any grievances be firstly heard by the independent Press Ombudsman or in front of the Press Council who can rule on the truth and fairness of coverage at minimal cost to both parties," Mr Devitt told the UN.