Government urgent to enact new defamation legislation on World Press Freedom Day

As World Press Freedom Day 2024 is marked in Ireland and across the world, NewsBrands Ireland and Local Irelandthe industry bodies for national and local news media, are calling on the government to follow through on its stated commitment to speedily enact defamation legislation.

Priority publication of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill is included in the government’s current legislative programme, and according to a coalition of Editors who have written to the Taoiseach, “it is crucial that the reforms, now prioritized by Government, be implemented as quickly as possible and, certainly, within the likely limited legislative timeframe of the current Dáil.

It would be a significant blow to a free media and to democracy itself if this important opportunity to enact new defamation legislation were to slip away now.”

Commenting on the sending of the letter, Dan Linehan, president of Local Ireland and general manager of Irish Times Regionals said: “In March 2023, the General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill was published by An Taoiseach Simon Harris, then Minister for Justice, following a lengthy review of the 2009 Defamation Act. We are still waiting for government to publish a Defamation (Amendment) Bill and to enact the long-promised reform of the defamation legislation. We are calling on the Government to do this before the summer recession.”

Colm O’Reilly, chairman of NewsBrands Ireland and COO of the Business Post, added: “World Press Freedom Day is a reminder of the crucial role of a free press in a healthy democracy and there is ample evidence that current Defamation legislation is not fit for purpose. These laws hinder the ability of the press to investigate and expose serious and important matters of public interest because of the potentially devastating levels of risk and costs on publishers.”

Abolition of Juries

The General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill recommends the abolition of juries in defamation actions and NewsBrands Ireland and Local Ireland assert that this is the most important change to our defamation legislation. Jury trials are unpredictable, time consuming and costly.

Their decisions lack transparency. Several jury awards, giving damages greatly in excess of those available in severe personal injury actions, have served to bring the legal system into disrepute. A reasoned decision by a judge brings predictability to the process and chimes with the need for greater openness and transparency in public life.

In addition, a trial before a jury lengthens considerably the time taken to run a case. They are often twice as long as equivalent cases before a Judge. This leads to greatly increased legal costs and a considerable waste of short time.

Serious Harm Test NewsBrands Ireland and Local Ireland have been calling for a serious harm test for several years and strongly endorse the recommendation from the Oireachtas justice committee that a serious harm test should apply in all defamation actions.

The General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill seeks to limit the test to cases involving companies, public authorities, and retailers. As is the case with retail outlets, the Irish media faces, on an almost daily basis, unwarranted and exaggerated claims for defamation.

In a joint statement, NewsBrands and Local Ireland say the costs of defending these claims are significant and these costs are often unrecoverable even where the defense succeeds.

“A serious harm test for all defamation proceedings would act as a deterrent to vexatious claims and alleviate the risks to Ireland associated with ‘libel tourism.’ All claimants have the option to have their case considered by the Office of the Press Ombudsman, including those who do not meet the serious harm test,” it reads.

At a time when press freedom is under attack in many parts of the world, both organizations say all possible efforts should be made to support a viable and free press here at home.

“The Government can now make a strong statement in support of press freedom by enacting defamation legislation reform without any further delay.”

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