Free-speech group raises concerns over court action taken by Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly

London-based NGO Index on Censorship filed a media freedom alert to the Council of Europe regarding the matter.
Free-speech group raises concerns over court action taken by Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly has taken a case against journalist Malachi O’Doherty and columnist Ruth Dudley Edwards. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Concerns have been raised by a group that advocates for free expression over court action taken by a Sinn Féin MLA against two commentators.

Index on Censorship, a London-based NGO, said it was concerned that the cases taken by Gerry Kelly against journalist Malachi O’Doherty and columnist Ruth Dudley Edwards “have several characteristics of strategic lawsuits against public participation”.

Mr Kelly brought the court action in Northern Ireland against the pair for comments made on a radio segment and in print, respectively, and is suing for aggravated damages. 

It is understood the pieces allegedly referred to Mr Kelly, who had been a member of the Provisional IRA, and his role in the 1983 Maze Prison escape.

Index on Censorship filed a media freedom alert to the Council of Europe regarding the matter, with its policy and campaigns manager Jessica Ní Mhainín saying that lawsuits against journalists “can have a serious and damaging impact on media freedom and on our democracy”.

“Everyone has the right to defend their good name, but as elected representatives, politicians have a duty to display a greater degree of restraint when it comes to taking to legal action against journalists," she said.

This is especially true when the contested statements are related to matters of public interest.” 

Ms Ní Mhainín said that the group is concerned that this is an example of a 'SLAPP' — strategic lawsuits against public participation.

“SLAPPs involve powerful people — such as politicians — making legal threats or taking legal actions against public watchdogs — such as journalists — in response to public interest speech,” she added.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

In April, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald issued High Court proceedings against RTÉ.

It is understood the case relates to a comment made during a radio segment earlier this year.

Papers were filed in the High Court by solicitors McCartan and Burke on behalf of Ms McDonald against the broadcaster.

No date has yet been set for the case to be heard.

Responding to this case, the Index on Censorship also flagged the case with the Council of Europe, which was the third such time an Irish action had been flagged since the system was brought in in 2015.

Sinn Féin has been contacted for comment.

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