How long will ‘prohibitive’ Irish defamation law remain unreformed?

Absence of long-promised reform of ‘punitive’ law mars climate for press freedom

Failure to reform Irish defamation law, despite "long-standing promises" by successive Irish governments to review the Defamation Act 2009, present "significant threats" to the State's press freedom, the non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders has warned. It said something similar last year, and indeed the year before, and is far from being the only group obliged to repeat its "serious" concerns.

Defamation law as it stands has helped to sustain “a prohibitive atmosphere” for journalists reporting on high-profile public figures and significant private interests, with litigious prominent individuals able to use it to become “largely untouchable”, according to Reporters Without Borders.

News industry representative group Newsbrands Ireland, which has called for a cap on damages and an end to jury-led defamation cases, has dubbed the law "draconian" and described the high level of damages that can result under the existing system as so "punitive" it has a "chilling effect" on journalism here.

With the media industry under such “tremendous financial pressure” to make out-of-court settlements, there is “a view in some quarters that taking an action against a publication is as good as a lottery payout”, Newsbrands suggested in its submission to the Future of Media Commission.

Journalists are not the only ones to have highlighted the miserable consequences of Irish defamation law: European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders recently told The Irish Times the legislation should be reviewed as it could suppress the ability of the media here to expose corruption. As it stands, it is being used instead to "put pressure on journalists".

A review of the 2009 Act was meant to have been completed within five years of its enactment. It wasn’t. Instead, a promise to “review and reform” defamation laws was a feature of last year’s programme for government. This reform, it said, would “ensure 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”.

While the wait for such a balanced approach goes on, the Government’s attitude to press freedom remains very much unbalanced.