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Irish defamation laws stifle attempts to expose corruption, says European Commissioner

Didier Reynders told a Dáil committee the high cost of defamation cases was a ‘concern’


European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders. Photo: Reuters/Thierry Roge

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders. Photo: Reuters/Thierry Roge

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders. Photo: Reuters/Thierry Roge

Ireland's defamation laws raise concerns surrounding the ability of the press to expose corruption, the European Commissioner for Justice has told a Dáil committee.

Didier Reynders, the former deputy prime minister of Belgium and an ex-foreign minister, said he wanted to underline this in the context of a review of defamation legislation now underway.

“It will be an important task for the parliament to see if it's possible to have an evolution about that,” he said, referring to criticisms from some in Ireland about the ability of the press to expose corruption in full compliance with defamation law in this country.

Former Justice Minister Michael McDowell, a senior counsel and senator, said he had started reform of defamation law in the early 2000s and agreed with the Commissioner that Irish defamation law “is a little bit suffocating” of investigative journalism.

“I think that there is scope for further reform,” he said. “I had proposed, for instance, that the presumption that charges against an individual are false should be reversed – and people who want to sue in our courts should undertake the onus of proving that what is said about them is actually false.”

But Mr McDowell said there had been pushback from "my then partners in Government” – Fianna Fáil – on that issue, and it never appeared in the legislation.

“I think that could be changed, because I think it is important that the law should permit the media to engage in reasonable and fair commentary on matters of public importance,” he said,

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This was particularly important in relation to the discharge of Governmental functions, and other important people within the community, “without the threat of very expensive litigation,” he said. “So I think there is room for improvement there.”

Commissioner Reynders said: “I would like to underline the fact that the frequent use and high cost of defamation cases (in Ireland) raise concerns.”

He said the European Commission was also concerned about hate speech on social media, and it would try to go further on the extension of the Eurocrime list, having already targeted terrorist propaganda online. Rapid removal of offensive material was a key aim.

Members states and the Commission were also concerned about disinformation, he said. “We don’t want to leave that in the hands of the big companies organising social media,” he said, suggesting it could come under a Digital Services Act.

The pandemic had seen an increase in criminality on the web, he said, and the European Commission was working on whether artificial intelligence could be used to detect hate speech, child exploitation and even harassment.

Brussels was satisfied in relation to media pluralism, constitutional guarantees and solid regulatory structures in Ireland, he said.

He noted there is a political culture in Ireland that avoids intervention in the editorial content of media outlets, and prevents conflicts of interest in terms of media ownership.

The media regulator updated information on media ownership on an annual basis, and this was to be welcomed because transparency is an important element, he said.

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