Media conference calls for reform of libel laws and raises conerns about threats to journalists

Last night's debate heard from Noel Doran, editor of the Irish News, Allison Morris, security correspondent, Sam McBride, political editor of the News Letter, Mike Nesbitt, UUP assembly member and Fergal McGoldrick, specialist media litigation solicitor at Carson McDowell

REFORM of libel laws in Northern Ireland and paramilitary threats to journalists were among the topics explored by leading media figures in a virtual conference last night.

Organised by the Society of Editors, a panel including Irish News editor Noel Doran and the paper's security correspondent Allison Morris, discussed the impact of private injunctions on press freedom.

Former Ulster Unionist leader and MLA Mike Nesbitt said there was an "open and shut case" for a major overhaul of the north's existing libel laws as they were so dated.

Mr Nesbitt, a former broadcast journalist, has brought a private members bill on the issue but said the DUP were "consistently hostile to it".

However, he revealed there had been significant development in recent days, with support from Finance Minister Conor Murphy.

"It's sitting with the bills office and everything has been slowed down due to Covid," he said.

"Mr Murphy contacted me by email last night to say that work has recommenced on it. He told me that although insufficient time amend the existing legislation here, the work now being undertaken in his department provides a 'sound evidence base for legislative change under the next mandate'".

Ms Morris also spoke of the numerous threats she had received, including a death threat from dissident republicans at the beginning of the pandemic.

The event was chaired by Martin Breen, deputy editor-in-chief of Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society said the debate was an opportunity to look more closely at threats to press freedom in Northern Ireland.

"Following the passage of the Defamation Act 2013 in England and Wales, concerted efforts have been made to ensure that similar meaningful reform of libel laws in Northern Ireland come to fruition.

"Alongside the issue of media plurality and the vexatious use of privacy injunctions to try to stifle legitimate reporting in Northern Ireland, journalists continue to face online abuse and paramilitary threats just for doing their job. With Northern Ireland's Justice Minister promising action on this issue, we look forward to hearing what can be done to end this intimidation, more than 25 years since the first paramilitary ceasefires."

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