Belfast Telegraph

Freedom of speech is vital in internet age

By Paul Connolly

MIKE Nesbitt has done everyone a favour by proposing a Private Member's Bill on reforming Northern Ireland's antiquated libel laws.

The Ulster Unionist leader has now succeeded in moving the issue from the public sphere into the legislative arena at Stormont.

His proposal, and associated consultation, is a decisive move which has put the ball back in the court of the DUP and, though in a less acute way, their main executive partners in Sinn Fein.

It also puts clear blue water between his party and others in a critically important matter that affects everyone.

By everyone, I mean everyone. This is not just about the Press. It's about writers and scientists; it's also about amateur bloggers or everyone who sends a Tweet or writes on Facebook or who runs a community website, or who writes a Press release.

We are all publishers now, so freedom of speech matters even more in the internet age.

Victims of scurrilous journalism will still have the opportunity to sue for defamation, and the pathways will be more affordable.

The days of libel as a playground for the rich and famous will hopefully be numbered.

Failing to modernise our laws could jeopardise inward investment, although in my opinion this is unlikely to be a priority for most.

It's been said that Dublin's tough libel regime did not scare away Google. But Google doesn't really generate content, rather it facilitates access to content. If NI Plc's ambitions lie in digital creative technologies — in other words creating content, that's what would collide with out-dated libel laws.

But this is a side issue.

Above all, change is needed because our civic society is very weak: we have no Opposition, no second scrutinising legislative chamber, weak local government and a conservative legal system.

We need to strengthen the quality of our civic debate and this is key.

The danger now is that politicians start cherry-picking the Defamation Act — or even use parliamentary procedural tricks to destroy it.

At the least, the Defamation Act 2013 needs to be transferred across as a whole. That, in my opinion, is legislatively the easiest thing to do and the right thing to do.

Paul Connolly is managing editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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