Editorial: 'The crucial battle for media freedom'
This year's World Press Freedom Index paints a worrying picture: "Hostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to authoritarian countries…more and more democratically elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy's essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion," it states. In the United States of America, where the concept of a free press was written into the First Amendment of the Constitution, President Trump's repeated criticisms of the press, his belittling of journalists, his emphasis on "fake news", his attacks on the press as the "enemy of the people", and his undervaluing of the press's importance in a democracy, are signs of danger to this freedom. As Vincent Crowley, the chairman of NewsBrands Ireland has said, in this country we have been fortunate that the role of the media as a cornerstone of democracy, as the probing and challenging voice of society, remains strong. But as unlikely as it might appear that this could change any time soon, it would be a mistake to take it for granted.
To mark World Press Freedom Day 2019, NewsBrands Ireland, the representative body for Ireland's leading news publishers, both print and online, has launched a campaign to highlight the urgent need for the reform of Ireland's defamation laws. These laws are among the most restrictive in Europe and throughout the English-speaking world. They result in having a chilling effect on the media's role as the public's watchdog and its ability to reveal matters of important public interest. Reform is long overdue. That said, it would be a mistake for the media to only point a finger elsewhere rather than to also examine its own behaviour. As George Orwell once said, the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech was not government censorship, but publishers, editors and journalists who exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion.
However, there are undoubtedly several aspects to Ireland's defamation laws which act as a threat to a free press and which, alongside Orwell's view, frighten publishers, editors and journalists and threaten the essential work of the media. That is why NewsBrands Ireland is campaigning for the reform of defamation laws here. This campaign calls for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to complete and publish the findings of the review of the Defamation Act 2009, and for the new Defamation Act to include a ''serious harm'' test, already successfully in operation in the UK, which discourages trivial claims that can stifle free expression and inundate Irish courts with lengthy and costly court cases. Claimants who do not meet the test have the option to take their case to the Office of Press Ombudsman. The campaign seeks a cap on damages, which in Ireland are much higher, often multiples of the equivalent awards, in Europe, as well as calling for the abolition of juries in defamation cases. Defamation is virtually the only civil action that continues to be decided by juries, which considerably lengthens the duration of a trial, increasing legal costs, and can result in unpredictable levels of awards. In the US, there is a reason that the First Amendment is first. Press freedom must be more than a concept; it is an essential part of a democracy. As Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, said: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."