A GROUP that highlights censorship and campaigns for free expression has raised concerns about a former Stormont junior minister’s defamation proceedings against two commentators.
Index on Censorship said it is concerned by lawsuits filed by Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly against Malachi O’Doherty and Ruth Dudley Edwards.
Both are being sued individually by the North Belfast MLA over comments made about Mr Kelly’s role in 1983 Maze Prison escape.
Mr O’Doherty is understood to have made his comments during a radio broadcast, while Ms Dudley Edwards’ remarks were in print.
Jessica Ní Mhainín of Index on Censorship said: “Everyone has the right to defend their good name but as elected representatives, politicians have a duty to display a greater degree of restraint when it comes to taking to legal action against journalists.
“This is especially true when the contested statements are related to matters of public interest. Lawsuits against journalists can have a serious and damaging impact on media freedom and on our democracy.”
The Index on Censorship policy and campaigns manager said the group had filed a media freedom alert to the Council of Europe whose Platform was established to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists.
Ms Ní Mhainí said the said the MLA’s lawsuits shared several characteristics with a number of strategic lawsuits against public participation – or ‘SLAPPs’.
“SLAPPs involve powerful people – such as politicians – making legal threats or taking legal actions against public watchdogs – such as journalists – in response to public interest speech,” she said.
She said the media freedom alert was the seventh filed on the United Kingdom to the Council of Europe this year and the third relating to SLAPPs.
In May this year Index on Censorship notified the Council of Europe about a defamation case launched by Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald against RTÉ.
Mrs McDonald initiated court proceedings against the national broadcaster the previous month over an item on the Morning Ireland radio programme in February.
The Sinn Féin leader was not involved in the discussion about the controversial exclusion of coalition politicians from a National Women’s Council rally, but reference was made to Sinn Féin’s treatment of Máiría Cahill, who was raped by a suspected senior IRA figure.
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