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Defamation laws 'seen as an inducement to self-censorship' for media in Ireland, EU commissioner says

The European Commissioner for Justice addressed Oireachtas members at a committee this afternoon.

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders
European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders
Image: Oireachtas TV

IRELAND’S DEFAMATION LAWS have led to a situation where media freedom is constrained, an Oireachtas committee has heard. 

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders told the Oireachtas European Affairs Committee this afternoon that “frequent defamation legal cases, high cost of defence and high damage awards by Irish courts are seen as an inducement to self-censorship”.

Reynders added that such a situation can also damage efforts from the media to highlight corruption. 

Media organisations in Ireland have long called on the government to reform these laws, which has been argued are the most strict in Europe and set too low a bar for a lawsuit to be pursued.

A commitment to reforming defamation laws was included in the Programme for Government with the aim of ensuring “a balanced approach to the right to freedom of expression, the right to protection of good name and reputation, and the right of access to justice”.

Speaking to TDs and Senators today, Reynders touched upon a number of points highlighted in the European Commission’s country-by-country report on the Rule of Law first launched last year.

In recent times, Europe has raised concerns over developments in the area of the rule of law in countries such as Poland and Hungary. Certain EU funds can be withheld if countries don’t meet requirements in the area of the rule of law. 

In its section on this country, that report noted: “Ireland’s defamation laws raise concerns as regards the ability of the press to expose corruption.”

Senator Michael McDowell told Commissioner Reynders today that he had begun steps to reform defamation law when he was Minister for Justice in the early-2000s.

“I agree with the commissioner that it is a little bit suffocating of investigative journalism,” he said.

McDowell added that it was important that the law should permit the media reasonable and fair commentary on matters of importance “without the threat of very expensive litigation”. 

Reynders said that he had noted that a review of defamation is ongoing. 

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“It will be an important task for the parliament to seek a resolution on that in regard to the criticisms coming from some members of the press about the ability of the press to expose corruption in full compliance with Ireland’s defamation law,” he said. 

“It is important to ensure a balanced approach between the freedom of expression and the right to protection of reputation.”

The European Commissioner on Justice added that reforms in other areas, such as the establishment of the Judicial Council and the appointment of judges would be welcomed. 

He said that a further report would be completed for countries on a state-by-state basis for each of the 27 countries in Europe later in the year. 

Reynders said he hoped to be able to speak about the next report before the Oireachtas committee in person. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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