Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

DUP libel laws stance puts jobs and investment at risk, warn peers

Northern Ireland could become the libel capital of the world

THE DUP has been accused of putting jobs and investment at risk by refusing to reform the laws on defamation in Northern Ireland.

The House of Lords debated the situation yesterday. Peers said the future of the creative economy and the freedom of speech of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, who use social media, were being put in danger.

A new, reformed law on defamation is due to come into effect in England and Wales later this year.

However, Stormont Finance and Personnel Minister Sammy Wilson has refused to allow the law to be applied in Northern Ireland.

Lord Black of Brentwood has warned that media jobs are at risk because Northern Ireland will be in danger of becoming the "libel capital" of the world.

"When politicians set their face against the future, investment and jobs suffer," he told the House of Lords.

"Over 4,000 people work in publishing in Northern Ireland and another 2,000 work in broadcast.

"Some of those jobs may well be at risk if some of those companies decide that it is now too dangerous to operate in a jurisdiction that stifles freedom of expression."

Lord Black warned that foreign investors will also be deterred from operating in Northern Ireland.

"I can see no circumstances in which Google, Yahoo, AOL, Twitter and others would establish businesses in an area that ties them to an out-of-date, repressive libel jurisdiction.

"This decision is, in effect, rejecting the high-end jobs that the province desperately needs."

Fellow Conservative peer Lord Lexden said the law of defamation has always been the same in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

He warned that publishers and broadcasters may be forced to sanitise national publications for fear of falling foul of "libel-friendly" Northern Ireland. Other peers warned that London-based papers and magazines may just stop publishing or distributing in Northern Ireland altogether, rather than risk being sued.

Legal expert Lord Lester of Herne Hill said the Executive may be breaching human rights guaranteed in the Good Friday Agreement as "not only those who seek to publish information, but everyone living in Northern Ireland will operate in a world of legal uncertainty".

Viscount Colville accused politicians in Northern Ireland of using the existing libel laws to bully journalists over trivial issues and creating a "chilling effect" on the local media.

"Threatening (legal) letters have been used to cower journalists in the province," he said.

"If journalists and authors are going to receive letters threatening defamation in such vexatious cases, imagine the fear in publishing anything more critical of politicians.

"The new defences against libel available in the rest of the UK later this year will offer protection and would surely encourage the advance of free speech in the province."

Viscount Colville warned that the flood of libel tourists that came to London because the old laws favoured the complainant will now end up in the Belfast courts.

Lord Bew warned that universities in Northern Ireland would also feel a chilling effect and academic freedom would be stifled.

Government minister Baroness Randerson said the issue was being debated in Northern Ireland and, therefore, she did not consider it "just" to impose the new law.

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