Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Why we must protect a free press – from exposing crime to campaigns for change

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WORLD Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference.

Since then May 3, the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day.

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May 3 is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom DayCredit: Getty Images – Getty
Chairman of NewsBrands Ireland Colm O’Reilly explains why it’s so important that the Government supports a free press in Ireland

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Chairman of NewsBrands Ireland Colm O’Reilly explains why it’s so important that the Government supports a free press in IrelandCredit: Fennell Photography

After 30 years, the historic connection made between the freedom to seek, impart and receive information and the public good remains as relevant as it was at the time of its signing.

May 3 also acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom.

In 2024, World Press Freedom Day is dedicated to the importance of journalism and freedom of expression in the context of the current global environmental crisis.

Here Colm O’ Reilly, Chairman of NewsBrands Ireland, the representative body for Ireland’s national print and digital news publishers, and COO of the Business Post, explains why it’s so important that the Government supports a free press in Ireland.

TODAY is World Press Freedom Day, a day to reflect on the role journalism plays in our society – from exposing corruption and crime, to holding power to account, to providing trusted, fact-checked information, and campaigning for change, like the current ‘Kids Can’t Wait’ campaign in The Irish Sun.

In Ireland we are lucky to have a healthy and vibrant journalism industry at a time when press freedom is under attack in many parts of the world. However, our defamation laws must be reformed urgently.

There is ample recent evidence of important stories being exposed by Ireland’s media that otherwise would have remained secret and detrimental to the common good.

But other equally serious and important matters of public interest never get revealed because of defamation laws that impose potentially devastating levels of risk and costs on publishers.

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The current Defamation Act is not fit for purpose and serves neither the public nor freedom of the press.

Ireland’s defamation laws are some of the strictest in Europe and the English-speaking world and often cited as having a chilling effect on the media’s role as the watchdog of the public.

NewsBrands Ireland and Local Ireland, the representative bodies for Ireland’s national and local news publishers, have lobbied for many years for reform and this has been recognised by the Government when they committed to reform of the Defamation Act 2009.

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.

Taoiseach Simon Harris published the General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill last year

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Taoiseach Simon Harris published the General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill last yearCredit: Damien Storan/PA Wire

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 without further delay.

Good defamation policy is not about giving journalists a free rein to write what they like.

It is about setting the right balance in order to protect people’s reputations and the need to defend and promote freedom of expression and the media’s ability to freely report on matters in the public interest.

Abolish juries

What can be done to bring Ireland’s Defamation Law into line with the rest of Europe? Abolition of juries.

The General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill recommends the abolition of juries in defamation actions.

This is the most important change to our defamation legislation. Jury trials are unpredictable, time consuming and costly and their decisions lack transparency.

A reasoned decision by a judge brings predictability to the process.

Serious harm test

We strongly endorse the recommendation from the Oireachtas justice committee that a serious harm test should apply in all defamation actions, and not just 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.

The costs of defending these claims are significant and these costs are often unrecoverable even where the defence 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.’

Enact reform without delay

All claimants have the option to argue their case via the free and independent Office of the Press Ombudsman, including those who do not meet a serious harm test.

At a time when press freedom is under attack in many parts of the world, 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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