Editorial: 'Threat of defamation cases is hampering a free press'
'International organisations which monitor press freedom are reviewing and have reduced Ireland's ranking in the world freedom index" - the stark words from Seán Donlon, who chairs the Press Council of Ireland, should make concerned citizens sit up and think.
The distinguished former diplomat's description of the 2009 Defamation Act as "draconian" is something with which every journalist in this country would agree. The whiff of legal action by powerful individuals who don't want stones turned over can be a powerful deterrent.
The council's annual report agrees that in the absence of a reform of the Act, newspapers are inhibited from investigating and publishing matters about which the public has a right to know.
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Reform of the Act has been long been promised - indeed, there is a clause in the 2009 Act requiring that it be reviewed after five years. In November 2016, the then-minister for justice announced a review, but more than two years later, it still has not been published.
The council is rightly encouraging more mediation before defamation cases reach the courts. This could include pre-trial procedures, such as a judge sitting with the involved parties outside of court, the council suggested yesterday.
Apart from the threat of a major damages award, the legal costs of a trial are a further chilling factor when it comes to decisions about publication of the stories that some do not want told. Mr Donlon, who calls for a revised Defamation Act, said: "Because of the exorbitant costs involved, they [news organisations] are understandably reluctant to confront legal actions and threats of such actions, sometimes from individuals with deeper pockets than those of the papers themselves."
Chief Justice Frank Clarke, who attended the launch of the annual report, agreed that defamation cases could benefit from a judge sitting people down beforehand, thus shortening the trial.
The idea of facilitating mediation before a full-blown defamation case is worth considering. But it must be done as a matter of urgency. The current regime is simply a continous threat to the full and fair operation of the news media in this country.
It's not an issue politicians confront regularly on the doorsteps, but it should be of concern to them. Politicians who for too long have dragged their heels instead of dealing with vital defamation reform should be mindful of where else their voters will find their news if not from reputable and trusted sources of journalism.
They may not always like what newspapers write, but the alternative to a free press is all too often fake news, manufactured and distributed through unregulated social media by unreliable sources. Of course, newspapers make mistakes, which is why there is an independent press council to which people can go if they cannot get ready redress.
But powerful individuals and corporations can bypass the council and go directly to the courts to tie the media up in lengthy and costly defamation cases. The time to act is now. The lack of political will to do so, is only adding to the chill.