Dublin, 23 November 2012
Anti-corruption organisation Transparency International Ireland (TI Ireland) has voiced its concerns over the use of litigation and threats of legal action against Irish journalists during the visit to Dublin this week of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.
TI Ireland’s Chief Executive John Devitt met with UN Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya, and informed her of a series of legal threats made by Independent News and Media’s largest shareholder Denis O’Brien against a number of political journalists and commentators. Seventeen journalists and media groups are believed to have been sued or threatened with legal action by Mr O’Brien since 1998 according to the National Union of Journalists.
Many of those threats appear to have been made against correspondents or commentators, including Sam Smyth, Dr Elaine Byrne and Vincent Browne, who have covered the proceedings or the second report of the Moriarty Tribunal into Payments to Politicians and Related Matters published in 2011. The Tribunal found that Mr O’Brien or his companies had made over €1 million in payments and guarantees in clandestine circumstances to the former Minister for Communications Michael Lowry after Mr Lowry had ‘delivered’ the award of the second mobile phone licence to Mr O’Brien’s consortium Esat Digiphone in 1996.
TI Ireland has called on Mr O’Brien to withdraw his threats of legal action against journalists and newspapers and to seek redress for unfair coverage through the Press Council instead.
‘The use of litigation and legal threats denies journalists and editors the human right to freely report and comment on matters of public importance. Journalists also have a duty to report or comment on issues in the public interest - even if they have a negative impact on Mr O’Brien’s reputation’, said Mr Devitt.
‘Of course, Mr O’Brien has a right to pursue his claims through the courts, but it is clear that the potential cost of defending a claim could be ruinous to a journalist. It is important therefore that any grievances be firstly heard by the independent Press Ombudsman or in front of the Press Council who can rule on the truth and fairness of coverage at minimal cost to both parties, Mr Devitt added.
During the meeting with the UN Special Rapporteur, TI Ireland also drew attention to the lack of regulation of media ownership and recommended the establishment of a ‘fit and proper test’ for owners of major press and broadcast bodies.
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