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Media committee to hear defamation cases 'exert chilling effect on free speech'

An Oireachtas Committee is set to discuss ways of resolving defamation complaints outside of the courts.

TDS AND SENATORS will hear at a committee meeting today that costly defamation proceedings bring major risks for news publications in Ireland.

The Oireachtas Committee on Culture and Media is meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss conflict resolution mechanisms outside of the courts system for handling media-related complaints.

It follows years of concerns raised by democracy and media experts who say that defamation proceedings in Ireland have a chilling effect on the media.

Among the committee’s membership is Sinn Féin TD Chris Andrews, who launched a legal case against The Irish Times and its political correspondent Harry McGee in November.

Dave O’Connell, editor of the Connacht Tribune, will speak to the committee on behalf of Local Ireland, which represents dozens of local newspaper in Ireland.

He will tell the committee that publishers recognise people’s right to a good name and that media outlets must rectify any mistakes if they are made.

However, current defamation legislation is not fit for purpose, he will say, and members of the public should understand that there are alternatives available to legal action if they have a problem with published material.

He will outline how costly actions can mean “job losses or even the future of a local newspaper, where economic pressures are already very challenging”.

“I’d hope we’re not one libel payout away from doom – but I wouldn’t like to have to put that to the test.”

A draft scheme for a new Defamation (Amendment) Bill was published last year that detailed the potential introduction of a ‘serious harm test’ which would mean that a statement could not be considered defamatory “unless its publication has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to the reputation” of the complainant “in the eyes of reasonable members of society”.

As the bill stands, the serious harm test would apply for cases involving corporations, public authorities and retailers.

NewsBrands Ireland, representing national newspapers, will tell the committee that the bill “goes some way towards ameliorating” existing problems but will add that the test should be expanded to all defamation cases.

It will say that in the absence of a serious harm test, very wealthy claimants would have little deterrent against taking legal action and that “nuisance” claimants would have little incentive to seek alternative forms of redress outside of the courts.

“The threat of sizeable damages and legal costs, exert a chilling effect on the right to free speech,” NewsBrands will tell the committee.

“The Irish media faces, on an almost daily basis, unwarranted and exaggerated claims for defamation.

“The costs of defending these cases are significant and these costs are often unrecoverable even where the defence succeeds.” 

The committee will meet at 1.30pm and can be viewed online.

The National Union of Journalists, Independent Broadcasters of Ireland and the Press Council of Ireland are also expected to address the committee.

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