Print media operating in ‘increasingly difficult environment’ – Minister

Helen McEntee tells Dáil she is committed to reforming defamation law

Traditional print media is operating in an “increasingly difficult environment”, where high awards and legal costs threaten the economic viability of some national newspapers, the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has said.

Ms McEntee has said she is committed to reviewing and reforming defamation law while adding that online defamation is a “complex and evolving area” of law.

Ms McEntee was speaking on Wednesday as the Dáil heard statements on the Report of Review of the Defamation Act 2009. The report has recommended that juries should no longer be involved in defamation cases because of their tendency to award huge awards in the past.

The report also recommended it should be easier to grant orders directing online service providers to disclose the identity of an anonymous poster of defamatory material.

The Cabinet approved the 300-page review earlier this year after it was brought to the Government by Ms McEntee. She has promised to legislate for the review’s major findings by the end of 2022.

“I want to ensure that our legislation addresses the challenges posed by an increasingly complex media landscape,” she said.

“I strongly believe that the rule of law and democracy in itself cannot truly flourish without robust protection for the right of freedom of expression though, of course, this must always be carefully balanced, as it is under our Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, with safeguarding the individual right to good name and reputation.

EU law

“Enshrining the right of access to justice for people whose rights have been infringed is also a core principle that we must uphold,” she added.

“Online defamation, in particular, is a complex and evolving area of law that presents particular challenges through its overlap with EU law and with privacy and data protection law. I am committed to reviewing and reforming defamation law with a view to upholding these rights and achieving that balance in line with our programme for Government commitments.”

Ms Entee also noted that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Supreme Court have underlined that awards in defamation cases must be proportionate to avoid infringing the right to freedom of expression.

‘Libel tourism’

Fianna Fáil TD Dara Calleary said it was "highly ironic" that a country which had such fearless journalism, including the likes of the late Veronica Guerin, was "under the cloud of the current defamation laws".

"You speak to editors and journalists, they speak of it [defamation laws] as a cloud and as an ongoing pressure and at a time when traditional media, on which we rely on for truth and standards and to challenge so many aspects of life, is under the pressure that it is under," the Mayo TD said.

"This is an anomaly that needs to be resolved. Ireland cannot be left in a situation which it was described as some weeks back as a kind of hub for libel tourism.

“That is not the kind of market or reputation we need to have, particularly now that the UK has left the EU.”