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Politicians should not resort to litigation as first line of defence against criticism – Ahearn

12th January 2024 - Senator Garret Ahearn

The trend of legal actions by Sinn Féin members against journalists and media outlets is a strategic ploy aimed at silencing critics, a Fine Gael Senator has said.

Senator Garret Ahearn said that the use of the legal system by Sinn Féin figures to challenge and potentially suppress media voices not only undermines journalistic freedom but also raises questions about the abuse of these legal mechanisms.

“This is particularly pertinent in the wake of the recent Belfast High Court ruling in the case involving Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly. His libel action against writer Malachi O’Doherty was struck out this week as ‘scandalous, frivolous and vexatious’ and described as an abuse of process aimed at silencing journalists and stifling free speech.

“Politicians, especially, should be resilient in the face of public scrutiny and criticism, and resorting to litigation should not be their first line of defence—a view shared by the European Court of Human Rights. The approach taken by Sinn Féin has attracted criticism from international bodies like Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists, Pen International, and Article 19.

“Sinn Féin’s members are currently taking cases against the media that have the hallmarks of SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), a type of litigation undertaken by those with deep pockets with the intention of silencing legitimate public interest speech.

“With at least eight active defamation cases against media houses and several against political rivals, this tactic is becoming a clear trend within Sinn Féin.

“An upcoming major overhaul of our defamation laws by Minister Helen McEntee this year is poised to empower courts in addressing abusive litigation, simultaneously discouraging potential claimants from participating in such practices. I believe this pivotal change holds promise and is a step in the right direction.

“It’s imperative that we discourage such strategic bullying tactics aimed at silencing critics. Encouraging accountability and fostering constructive engagement with the media is essential for the integrity of our democracy.” concluded Senator Ahearn.

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