Belfast Telegraph

Free speech under spotlight as campaigners debate Northern Ireland libel laws

By Adrian Rutherford

Free speech campaigners will today call for urgent reform of Northern Ireland's outdated libel laws.

A Belfast conference involving academics, journalists and lawyers will outline the need for our 175-year-old legislation to be updated.

It has been organised by the Libel Reform Campaign, a group lobbying for reform of defamation law in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The 2013 Defamation Act introduced the first substantial reform of the UK's defamation law since 1843, but it was not extended to here. The Department of Finance's report into libel law reform, carried out by Dr Andrew Scott in 2016, recommended substantive reform of the law to better protect free speech in the public interest.

The report included two prepared pieces of primary legislation that could be taken through the Northern Ireland Assembly as the Defamation (Northern Ireland) Bill. Campaigners say the current law is outdated because it does not provide for the realities of digital publishing.

They also say that changes in the law are needed to protect scientists, journalists and academics from litigious prosecution by corporations and public bodies.

The legislative changes would also strengthen the defence of public interest, reduce the window of time defamation cases can be brought within and end so-called 'libel tourism' in Northern Ireland in which people from other countries try to take advantage of the defamation laws.

It was widely hoped at the time of publication that the legislation drafted by Dr Scott would have been passed imminently to protect free speech.

However, the suspension of the Stormont Assembly has led to an indefinite delay in the adoption of the recommendations.

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt, who will attend the event, has said that if a new Executive fails to take Dr Scott's recommendations forward, he will table a Private Members' Bill when the Assembly returns.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Mr Nesbitt states: "The 2013 Act in force in England and Wales makes it much easier for academics to make adverse comment on products and services offered by multinational companies, whereas the same academic comment made from our local universities could result in an expensive appearance in court.

"On top of that, the difference in our laws endangers current jobs in publishing and broadcasting, deters inward investment from media platforms like Twitter, Google and Facebook, and chills the warm welcome we attempt to offer the creative industries.

"Should the Executive and Assembly ever return, I am ready to proceed with a Private Member's Bill to accommodate the change in the law that logic demands."

Mike Harris of the Libel Reform Campaign said: "Without reform, the chill on free speech in Northern Ireland will continue and the rich and powerful will be able to use the law to their own advantage."

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