Ahern 'bemused' by criticism

 

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern has said he is “bemused” by recent criticism of his proposal to include an offence of blasphemy in new defamation legislation due to be debated before an Oireachtas committee tomorrow.

Mr Ahern was responding after the media watchdog of the world’s largest regional security organisation said the Government’s plan to introduce the blasphemy law would be in violation of international agreements on media freedom.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, said new court cases that might emerge as a result of criminalising 'blasphemy' would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.

Mr Ahern last month revealed he would propose an offence of blasphemous libel in an amendment to the Defamation Bill. The new section of the Bill will state: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”

He insists he is obliged to take account of the offence of blasphemy, which is provided for in the 1937 Constitution.

Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution states that the “publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law”.

Under the 1961 Defamation Act, the publication of any “blasphemous or obscene” libel is subject, on conviction, to a fine of up to £500 (pounds) or imprisonment for a term of up to two years, or to “both fine and imprisonment or to penal servitude for a term not exceeding seven years”.

A spokesman for Mr Ahern said he had two options, either to amend the Constitution, or amend the law.

The spokesman said the Minister was “bemused” by recent criticism of his propsal to amend the law on blasphemy.

“He has to do it because he is the Minister for Justice and he cannot willfully ignore the Constitution. Unlike the ‘commentariat’, the Minister does not have the option of wilfully ignoring the Constitution. He is the Minister for Justice and he is advised by the Attorney General that he has to have regard to the offence of blasphemy.”

The spokesman said the Minister felt that in the “current economic environment” it was not the time to go to the people seeking to amend an article of the Constitution.

The Minister will propose an amendment to the 2006 Defamation Bill at the Committee stage in the Oireachtas tomorrow.

Under the Minister’s amendment, the offence of blasphemy can only be prosecuted following a decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions. The offence will also no longer be punishable by a jail term.

That amendment will state that it shall be a defence where a prosecution is taken under the section on blasphemy for the defendant to prove that a “reasonable person” would find “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value” in the material to which the alleged offence relates.

The debate on the Defamation Bill 2006 continues at Committee stage tomorrow when the Oireachtas Committee on Justice will discuss proposed amendments.

Mr Haraszti today welcomed the Government’s plan to decriminalise defamation, but said the proposal to create the offence of ‘blasphemous libel’ risked “jeopardising OSCE media freedom commitments”.

In a statement on the OSCE’s website today, he said Ireland was “in the vanguard of 21st century media freedoms as it prepares to officially make defamation a mere civil offence”.

“It would therefore be unfortunate to introduce at the same time a new crime of 'blasphemous libel'.”

Mr Haraszti has written to Mr Ahern and to the Oireachtas committee debating the Bill, urging that it be passed without the blasphemy provision.