The National Union of Journalists has said the decision by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald to sue RTÉ for damages for defamation is “worrying” and could have a “chilling impact on press freedom”.
Séamus Dooley, the Irish secretary of the NUJ, was reacting to the news that Ms McDonald had issued High Court proceedings against RTÉ for a Morning Ireland broadcast in February.
The discussion did not involve Ms McDonald but made reference to the treatment of rape victim Máiría Cahill by Sinn Féin and the IRA.
Ms McDonald issued proceedings against the broadcaster on Monday seeking damages for defamation.
“It is worrying that the leader of the Opposition should initiate legal proceedings against the public service broadcaster in these circumstances,” Mr Dooley said.
“Elected representatives who feel they have been misrepresented should exhaust all options before pressing the nuclear option of court proceedings,” he said.
He noted that it was “not clear” if Ms McDonald had sought alternative methods of redress, such as a right of reply.
Ms McDonald’s spokesman declined to comment when asked if she had sought any alternative redress.
“Public representatives, as citizens do have legal rights and I would not wish to be seen to undermine their entitlement to vindicate those rights,” Mr Dooley added.
However, he said: “Defamation proceedings can have a chilling impact on press freedom ... It’s important that media organisations are not inhibited by libel threats, from whatever source and that editors and journalists continue to ask awkward questions.”
Mr Dooley said the recently published review of defamation laws recognised the need for reform.
Sinn Féin has previously said it was in favour of reforming the law of libel, but senior party figures have increasingly begun to resort to libel actions against the media and political opponents.