Sinn Fein chair Mary Lou McDonald in a row over freedom of the press following a libel action against RTE

The Index on Censorship, a London-based organization that campaigns for press freedom globally, has filed a “media freedom alert” with the Council’s “Safety of Journalists Platform” Europe.

The COE is an international organization in Strasbourg bringing together 46 countries created to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.

The COE yesterday issued the alert headlined ‘Sinn Fein leader lodges SLAPP suit against RTE’.

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Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald is suing RTE for defamation. Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

A SLAPP is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” which the European Commission recently described as a “serious threat to democracy and fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression and information”.

The WCC website called the case “harassment and intimidation of journalists”, with the “source of threat” classified as “non-state”.

This decision relates to a High Court summons filed by Mary Lou McDonald against RTE on April 25, 2022.

The dispute concerns an RTE Radio 1 broadcast on February 16 about the controversy surrounding politicians who had been invited – and not invited – to speak at a rally of the National Council of Women of Ireland ahead of International Women’s Day. woman on March 8, the WCC said.

“McDonald was one of the female politicians invited to speak at the rally, but she did not speak on the radio,” the alert said. “During the broadcast, the RTÉ journalist spoke about the historic handling of sexual abuse allegations by Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Victims of the abuse were not interviewed, but they have long been candid about the mishandling of abuse allegations by Republican leaders.

“This is the third time McDonald’s has brought libel proceedings in the High Court since 2014 and the second relates to reports of Sinn Féin’s and the IRA’s historic handling of sexual abuse allegations.”

The Index on Censorship said: “We are alarmed by the legal action brought against RTÉ by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, as we believe the action is characteristic of a strategic lawsuit against public participation. or “SLAPP”.

“We identify SLAPPs through certain key characteristics, but fundamentally they involve powerful people making legal threats or taking legal action against public watchdogs – such as the media – in response to speeches of interest. public that may be inconvenient to them or their interests.

“Politicians are elected by the citizens; they and their actions must therefore be subject to public scrutiny. Lawsuits that discourage or prevent discussion that is in the public interest can have a serious and damaging impact on media freedom and our democracies.

Mary Lou McDonald was asked to comment.

The COE categorized the action as a “Level 2” alert, which it says can include, but is not limited to, “physical assaults, acts of intimidation and harassment; the use by public figures of threatening or seriously abusive language towards members of the media; seizure or wrongful damage to property or equipment; laws and regulations that unduly restrict media freedom or access to information; actions that compromise the confidentiality of sources or the independence of public sector broadcasters; abusive or disproportionate use of legislation; abuse of governmental or other powers to direct media content or penalize media or journalists; interference with media freedom through ownership, control and regulation; and other acts that seriously threaten the freedom of the media, offline or online”.

A Level 1 alert – which McDonald is not charged with – covers the most serious and damaging violations of media freedom, including but not limited to murder, assassination or direct threat to the lives of journalists, physical attacks, impunity for such violations; prolonged arbitrary detention, arbitrary closure of a media company or any other act that seriously threatens the freedom of the media.

EUROPEAN COMMISSION ACTION AGAINST ‘SLAPPS’

Last month, the European Union executive said it wanted to see the EU pass legislation to protect journalists and civil rights activists from lawsuits aimed at censoring them.

The European Commission has proposed safeguards to curb strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPS).

He called these disputes a “serious threat to democracy and fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression and information”.

Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese investigative journalist who was killed in a car bomb attack in 2017, faced more than 40 charges when she was killed, the commission said.

The proposed law would allow courts to dismiss cases early in the proceedings and would place the burden of proof on litigants “to prove that the case is not manifestly unfounded,” the commission said.

Prosecuting parties would bear all procedural costs, including defense attorneys’ fees, if a case is dismissed as abusive.

Those affected by the Slapps would also be eligible for compensatory damages.

“The Anti-Slapp Directive proposed by the European Commission today is a major step forward in tackling the use of ‘gag suits’ to intimidate and silence journalists,” the freedom of journalists organization said. media Reporters Without Borders.

To enter into force, the proposal must be approved by EU member countries and by lawmakers in the European Parliament.

The Directive covers Slapps in civil matters with cross-border implications since the EU is not empowered to legislate on strictly national matters.

The committee recommends that member countries apply the proposed rules at national level.

According to the commission, 439 physical and judicial attacks against journalists and media workers took place in 24 EU countries last year.

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