Ahern defends blasphemy changes

Wed, Apr 29, 2009, 01:00

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern tonight defended plans to introduce a new crime of blasphemous libel in an amendment to the Defamation Bill.

At the moment there is no crime of blasphemy on the statute books, though it is prohibited by the Constitution.

Article 40 of the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech, qualifies it by stating: “The State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.

“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent material is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

Mr Ahern proposes to insert a new section into the Defamation Bill, stating: “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.”

A spokesman for Mr Ahern maintained that under the Constitution the Minister must have a crime of blasphemy on the statute books. “The Minister’s hands are tied in this,” said the spokesman.

“The Minister has been told by the Attorney General that he has to have a law in relation to blasphemous libel, so he is amending the existing law to remove the jail term," he said. "The alternative in not having the law is for the country to hold a referendum removing that article from the Constitution.”

Under the Defamation Act 1961, any person who composes, prints or publishes any blasphemous or obscene libel is liable to a fine and up to seven years in jail.

The Department of Justice said new proposals contained in the Defamation Bill, currently before the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, drops the threat of a prison sentence.

A spokesman said setting the fine at €100,000 means any cases will be heard in the High Court.

“It will be up to the discretion of the Director Public Prosecutions to take any action,” he added. “The existing law means somebody could be jailed. He is amending that to remove the jail term, even if someone is convicted.”