Irish Examiner view: Who benefits from media gagging?

EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders said our defamation laws should be reviewed as they suppress the capacity to expose or even suggest corruption
Irish Examiner view: Who benefits from media gagging?

Anti-coup protesters use fire extinguishers to reduce the impact of teargas fired by riot policemen in Yangon, Myanmar, yesterday. Picture: AP

Most of Donald Trump’s rallies followed a pantomime script. He used the “he’s behind you! he’s behind you!” line when he sensed his audience was amenable to a bout of media goading. Almost playfully offered, his fake-news tirades were malign in intent and directed at one of the few arms of American society prepared to challenge his dishonesty — as the subsequent impeachment vote confirmed. 

Even if that undermining was more successful than is comfortable, we can only speculate how those attacks might have evolved had he won a second term. He might not have gone as far as Mohammed bin Salman or Vladimir Putin, but he might have been tempted to follow the example of Myanmar’s junta, which revoked the licences of five media outlets to block coverage of anti-coup protesters being shot dead on streets.

If may seem difficult to see parallels in those situations with today’s Ireland but that points to an unwise complacency and ignores arrangements that do not serve the common good. 

Speaking remotely to the Oireachtas European Affairs committee yesterday, EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders said our defamation laws should be reviewed as they suppress the capacity to expose or even suggest corruption. 

He warned that “Ireland’s defamation laws raise concerns as to the ability of the press or the media to expose corruption... we have seen more attacks and harassment against journalists. Some murders, in Malta and Slovakia, to harassment on the internet, and... many lawsuits.”

Describing a reality all too familiar, Mr Reynders pointed out that our defamation laws are notoriously strict and can be leveraged to “put pressure on journalists”. 

This persists, despite decades of campaigning for change and myriad promises from politicians, while in opposition invariably, to reform these laws. The changing media landscape exacerbates the need for these reforms, as online platforms are not subject to the laws that overshadow legacy media.

There are vivid current examples of what can and cannot be published in Ireland. A recent Prime Time Investigates programme dealt with the role of Éamon de Valera Jr in illegal adoptions. As he died in 1986 — under Irish law the dead cannot be libelled — it is possible to say, as our columnist Fergus Finlay has, that he “stole babies from their young unmarried mothers and gave those babies to his own patients". 

Were such direct language used in connection with the Davy stockbroking scandal, the editor could anticipate an invitation to one of the country’s more expensive courtrooms. Unless that editor could substantiate details that eluded our Central Bank for years, the sanction would be commercially devastating. 

By shackling the capacity to describe these events fairly, the media is undermined in a way that would please Trump and his fake news chorus. This is not coincidental. That we get the politicians we deserve is a truism but one that is shaped by media laws that protect the indefensible — even if those laws apply only to traditional platforms.

This has been well established for decades, but Mr Reynders’ intervention raises that old question one more time: Who really benefits from this gagging?

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