Libel law in NI is being used to silence reports that would be legal in GB

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None of us like to think there are things we aren’t allowed to know.

Yet, in Northern Ireland today, the rich and powerful can silence journalists, writers, even doctors, scientists and academics through the law of libel.

Mike Harris, of the Libel Reform Campaign

Mike Harris, of the Libel Reform Campaign

The law is so inadequate it gives people speaking out against abuses of power few protections, even when what they write is in the public interest.

Belfast is becoming a town named sue where the law is used to silence press reporting that would be entirely legal in the High Court in London.

Why does this affect you? A survey of doctors found that half of GPs felt unreformed libel laws restricted open discussion of potential risks of drug treatment.

One NHS cardiologist, Dr Peter Wilmshurst, told the Assembly about how he had spent four years of his life fighting a US corporation that sued him for questioning the safety of a heart value.

Laughably, the rule on internet publication in NI predates the invention of the light bulb let alone Facebook.

Technology and media companies have warned the Assembly that NI’s libel laws are so restrictive they put at risk the creation of new highly-paid jobs.

The Northern Ireland Libel Reform Campaign is calling on assembly candidates to back our call for libel law reform after May’s elections. Hundreds of people across Northern Ireland support us with 747 people surveyed backing our call to adopt legislation passed in 2013 (the Defamation Act) to protect free speech. Some 95% of those surveyed want stronger protections for free speech and 92% want a strengthened public interest defence for journalists, scientists and academics.

As citizens, elections are the opportunity we have to quiz those who want to represent us. Ask your candidates whether they support libel reform. It’s a powerful test to discover whether they believe in openness and transparency in public office.

If they do, they will back reform of the law.

Mike Harris, of the Libel Reform Campaign, is one of the signatories to a letter to the leaders of NI’s main political parties. It was also signed by: Jo Glanville, English PEN; Sile Lane, Sense About Science; Paul Connolly, Jeff Dudgeon MBE, Bernard Fitzpatrick, Lyra McKee, Glenn Patterson, Brian John Spencer, Dr Tom Woolley