The Irish Times view on defamation laws: An existential threat to journalism

A new balance must be found between protecting the right to a good name and the right to free speech

The UN’s World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) is more often than not an occasion for pious statements from politicians extolling the media’s role as essential pillars of our democratic society. You have our full support, they say.

Such pieties are rarely matched by corresponding critical analysis of the actual state of press freedom and of the forces that chill speech and reporting in Ireland. That, it appears, is someone else’s problem.

Not so. In at least two major respects - the punitive defamation regime and excessive media ownership concentration - Ireland’s media landscape falls short of the best democratic standards.

This year WPFD takes place against the background of intense debate internationally over how to curtail unacceptable speech, specifically on the internet and social media. Such content ranges from racist and Islamophobic speech, to sexually exploitative material, terrorist propaganda, interference in elections, and erosion of privacy. And proposed action, at EU and national level, from legislation to binding the giant social media companies to new codes of conduct and good behaviour.


Important and welcome parts of that debate are about how to ensure restrictions on media reflect proportionality, how to preserve media freedom, and where to draw the line - how unacceptable must speech be to warrant the erosion of rights in a democratic society? And how should it be punished in a way that does not itself inhibit free speech unnecessarily?

These are all questions that urgently need to be asked again about another area where there is already legislative curtailment of speech - the protection of reputations through defamation law.

Today editorials run simultaneously in all the State’s major newspapers to highlight the reality that Ireland’s civil defamation law, among the most oppressive in Europe, seriously inhibits free speech and threatens the precarious economic viability of our press.

In part that is through disproportionate, in some cases monumental, awards which value reputations in multiples of lost limbs or lives.

In part, it is by setting requirements of proof that privilege private reputation over the public right to know in a way that undermines the idea of an open society and democratic accountability.

The law was inadequately reformed in 2009 but a five-year review, required in the legislation, has never been completed. And litigation is on the increase. Courts Service figures show there was an 85 per cent increase in the number of defamation cases taken in the Circuit Court last year.

Ireland should, at the very least, follow the UK in requiring that a claimant shows serious harm has been caused to their reputation.

Journalism matters and press freedom matters if it is to be sustained. Now a new balance must be found between protecting the human right to a good name and the human right to free speech.