Mike Nesbitt's Private Member's Bill on the reform of Northern Ireland's defamation laws has been given the green light by the UK Government. As the Bill covers issues surrounding online content, the Secretary of State's consent was required before the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly could accept the Bill.

Mike Nesbitt said:

"I have been trying for over five years to bring Northern Ireland's defamation laws into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, but have been frustrated by a number of obstacles, not least the three-year hiatus when Stormont was suspended.

"England and Wales updated their defamation laws in 2013, but while we could have followed suit, we did not because of a shameful decision by Sammy Wilson, who was Finance Minister in the NI Executive at the time. Mr Wilson had a range of options. He could have adopted the new GB laws through a Legislative Consent Motion. He could have consulted the public, or he could have brought the matter before his Executive colleagues. He chose none of the above and simply decided our laws were fit for purpose, even though they pre-date the invention of the internet.

"I intend to right that wrong. Defamation may not seem like an important matter on the face of it, but there is a need to keep a proper balance between freedom of speech and the protection of reputations. My proposals will help protect investigative journalism. With no Official Opposition at Stormont, or a second revising chamber such as the Lords in London or Seanad Éireann in Dublin, the role of the media in scrutinising the work of the Executive is even more important here than elsewhere.

"My proposals will also offer protections to academics who may currently choose not to publish commentaries they fear may attract legal action from wealthy individuals and organisations. This will make our universities more attractive to researchers. It will also protect jobs in the media and publishing sectors.

"With no more than a year until the next Assembly Elections, the Secretary of State's consent is timely, as I believe my Bill can now pass all stages of the Assembly's legislative process during this mandate."


Note to Editors:

Mike Nesbitt's Private Member's Bill includes Clause 5 "Operators of Websites", which falls within the category of Reserved Matters, under Telecommunication and Internet Services (Schedule 3 Clause 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998).

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