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Free speech campaigners call for libel law reform in Northern Ireland

Academics, journalists and lawyers meet at the Human Rights Commisson in Belfast to urge the Department of Finance not to give up on free speech. Picture by Mal McCann

FREE speech campaigners gathered in Belfast yesterday to call for urgent reform of the north's libel laws.

Academics, journalists and lawyers attended the event organised by the Libel Reform Campaign, a group lobbying for changes to defamation law in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The law in England and Wales was reformed by the 2013 Defamation Act, but it was not extended to Northern Ireland.

In 2016 a report commissioned by Stormont's Department of Finance recommended for the north's libel laws to be brought substantially into line with England and Wales.

However, the collapse of the power-sharing institutions has led to an indefinite delay in the adoption of the recommendations.

Campaigners say the current law is outdated, and changes are needed to protect scientists, journalists and academics from litigious prosecution by corporations and public bodies.

They say the reforms would also strengthen the defence of public interest, reduce the timeframe within which defamation cases can be brought, and end 'libel tourism' where people from other countries take advantage of the north's defamation laws.

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt – who attended yesterday's event at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission – said he will table a new private members' bill on the issue when the assembly returns if a new executive does not act.

He said the current laws endanger jobs in publishing and broadcasting, and deter inward investment from large tech companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook.

Mike Harris of the Libel Reform Campaign said the Stormont report by legal academic Dr Andrew Scott gives the assembly a "blueprint to reform the law".

"Without reform, the chill on free speech in Northern Ireland will continue and the rich and powerful will be able to use the law to their own advantage," he said.

Dr Scott said: "A consultation has run, and the report been published. It is clear that there are problems, but also solutions. It is clear too that there is huge public support for freedom of speech, and for the protection of reputations.

"What is not clear is how legal change can be achieved in the absence of a government.

"It is vital that defamation reform stays on the agenda so that the people of NI have both their right to free speech upheld and their reputations properly protected."

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