New social media laws sought in wake of Belfast rape trial

Culture Minister Josepha Madigan

A Government minister has insisted new laws to curb the threat of social media to criminal cases are immediately introduced in the wake of the Belfast rape trial.

Culture Minister Josepha Madigan said her contempt of court bill — which was stalled when she entered cabinet last November — must be re-examined due to the level of commentary both during and after the nine-week trial in order to protect the judicial process.

Last week, Ulster and Ireland rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of the rape of a 19-year-old. Paddy Jackson was also cleared of sexually assault.

Thousands of people used social media to voice their anger over the verdict under the hashtags #ibelieveher and #suemepaddy. The commentary came after repeated social media postings during the trial which had led to fears people are breaching contempt of court rules.

While stressing she is not trying to gag the public, Ms Madigan said the Belfast trial situation and a similar issue surrounding last year’s Jobstown water charges protest trials means the Government must clamp down on the commentary.

Ms Madigan said the only way to do this is to bring Ireland’s contempt of court laws into the 21st century —adding her previously shelved bill must now be passed and implemented.

“There is a balance between fair comment and somebody trying to influence the outcome of a criminal trial,” she told RTÉ Radio’s Today With Sean O’Rourke programme.

The aim of the bill is to clarify the law of contempt, because it is not on a statutory footing. We need clarification to modernise the law of contempt.

Ms Madigan said she wants to extend existing contempt of court laws for traditional media such as newspapers, radio and TV to social media. This could potentially include “take down” orders on sections of some websites and the blocking of certain hashtags that may be considered inflammatory.

The culture minister said the situation has been trialled in New Zealand and called for by former chief justice Susan Denham in the wake of the Jobstown water charges trial of Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy and others last year.

Ms Madigan said she plans to speak with Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and other cabinet colleagues in the coming weeks.

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