Wednesday 23 January 2019

Josepha Madigan: Irresponsible social media usage must be tackled to protect justice system

People at a rally expressing solidarity with the woman at the centre of the Belfast rape trial outside Cork City Hall yesterday. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
People at a rally expressing solidarity with the woman at the centre of the Belfast rape trial outside Cork City Hall yesterday. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Josepha Madigan

As the criminal trial in Belfast of two high-profile rugby players for rape ended, a massive wave of emotion reverberated. The reaction on social media was particularly powerful, with #Ibelieveher trending and myriad opinions being expressed.

While the hashtag has changed, some serious issues that appeared during and after this trial are similar to those that prompted me to bring forth proposals last year around the use of social media posts during criminal court cases.

In that instance, #JobstownNotGuilty was being used persistently during the criminal trial last year of Paul Murphy TD and a number of other individuals were tried for false imprisonment in 2014 of the then-Tánaiste Joan Burton and her adviser Karen O’Connell at a water charges protest.

It trended on Twitter in Ireland throughout the trial. 

It is completely unacceptable for prejudicial comments like this to be made during the course of a criminal trial. We do not know and cannot know if the social media campaign had undue influence on the jury in that case, but it is apparent that we need to protect jurors from attempts to influence them through social media. 

It was clear to me then that there was a pressing need for contempt of court legislation to deal with social media usage during trials.

Although Belfast is in a different jurisdiction, the recent events there have further convinced me that this is an issue that we urgently need to regulate properly.

During and after the trial, repeated threats were made to name the woman who reported the rape case on social media.

Similarly, right throughout the trial, comments were made on a daily basis about the people involved in the case.

This is completely unacceptable and we must act decisively to ensure our laws are an effective deterrent against this kind of damaging online activity.

Under the terms of the legislation that I drafted and put before the Dáil last year, social media companies would face unlimited fines if they left up posts that could jeopardise criminal proceedings.

Once enacted, this law – which coincides with the social media companies’ efforts to tackle “fake news” – would put Ireland to the forefront of regulating social media.

Central to this move is giving statutory footing to the law of contempt of court. Last year, then-chief justice Susan Denham said that procedures were needed so that contempt of court laws could be used against those who disrupt court proceedings with social media.

My proposals would give judges the power to direct that material which risks prejudicing court proceedings be removed from websites. They would also be able to order that the website’s operators take steps that the court deems reasonably necessary to prevent the publication of some posts.

The penalty for individuals found to be in contempt of court after they made posts on social media would be imprisonment or a fine. 

The introduction of this type of legislation would in no way curtail legitimate freedom of speech. Rather, it is a recognition that our current laws are outdated in light of modern developments in communications technology.

Our democratic system under the rule of law relies on the integrity of our court system. We must do our utmost to protect it. 

Josepha Madigan TD is Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and is a solicitor and mediator.

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