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Ireland should amend its defamation laws in order to strengthen protections for freedom of expression in the press, the board of the international representative body for newspapers has said.
At a meeting in New York, the board of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), which represents more than 18,000 publications in 120 countries, expressed its “dismay” that damages in defamation cases in Ireland are much higher, often by a factor of 10, than in neighbouring jurisdictions.
It pointed out that the Irish Supreme Court, in a decision criticised by the European Court of Human Rights, had made an award against one newspaper of €1.25 million, that the use of juries in press cases leads to “unpredictability and extraordinarily high awards”, and that the costs associated with defamation cases “threaten the very existence” of national and local titles in Ireland.
“The board of WAN-IFRA expresses its solidarity with Irish newspapers seeking to have Irish law brought into line with that in other developed democracies,” the board said in a statement. “It reiterates the importance of a free, independent and vibrant press holding governments and the powerful to account, unhindered by repressive defamation laws.”
The board acknowledged the need for laws to protect the reputation of individuals from unjust attack, but supported the view expressed in a recent judgment by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that unpredictable and excessive awards of damages and legal costs in Ireland have a chilling effect upon the media “and upon the right of the public to be informed of issues of significance”.
In June, the court found in favour of Independent News & Media (INM), agreeing there had been a failure in the effectiveness of safeguards against disproportionate damages which were awarded to PR consultant Monica Leech.
A review by the Department of Justice of the 2009 Defamation Act, originally scheduled for 2014, was announced by then minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald in November of last year and has not yet been completed.
In its submission to the review, NewsBrands Ireland, which represents print and online national newspapers, said high defamation awards threaten the existence of the Irish media.