Free speech champion slams Stormont on libel reform block
THE Assembly has been challenged by an international freedom of speech charity to explain why Northern Ireland has been excluded from sweeping reforms to the UK's outdated libel laws.
The Defamation Bill – the first major reform to our libel legislation for 170 years – moved a step closer to becoming law after it was passed in the House of Lords this week.
However, it will not apply to Northern Ireland because Stormont blocked it from being extended here. It has been claimed the decision was taken by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's department, the Office of First and Deputy First Minister.
Mike Harris from the Index on Censorship – an organisation which champions freedom of speech around the world – said it was unacceptable that Northern Ireland had been excluded.
"This is a good piece of legislation which will end the international humiliation from our libel laws, which have been proven by the United Nations Human Rights Committee to chill free speech," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "Northern Ireland's politicians should be called to account for why they don't think the people of Northern Ireland deserve the same protections for free speech as other countries."
The Defamation Bill has been described as a landmark piece of legislation and will provide more protection for individuals and organisations – including newspapers and broadcasters – to criticise big companies.
On Tuesday peers voted by a majority of 78 to pass the Bill.
It will now proceed to Royal Assent. However, the final version has been watered down. Earlier this month the DUP voted with Conservatives to remove a key piece of legislation which would have prevented large companies such as McDonald's and Tesco suing their critics unless they could prove financial losses.
There is now concern that Belfast could become a capital for so-called libel tourism.
Foreigners have increasingly used British courts to sue overseas publications under the UK's stricter regime.
Exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who passed away last month, sued US business magazine Forbes over an article implying he could teach Sicilian gangsters "a thing or two".
US celebrities Jennifer Lopez and Kate Hudson have also taken libel cases in British courts.
Mr Harris said there were genuine fears that Belfast could replace London as a so-called libel tourism destination.
"All previous defamation acts have applied to Northern Ireland, so it seems the Assembly has proactively lobbied to be excluded from this legislation," he added.
"Our concern is that Northern Ireland will continue to have antiquated libel laws and become a libel tourism capital where cases that can't be taken in England will be taken to Belfast."
The Bill's architect, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester, previously told the Belfast Telegraph that Stormont's block was a "very bad step" for the public.
The Defamation Bill aims to reform the law of defamation to ensure a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. It makes a number of substantive changes to the libel law, including:
• Removing the current presumption in favour of a jury trial.
• Providing increased protection to operators of websites that host user-generated content.