Threatened changes to defamation laws in Tasmania could compromise press freedom and leave journalists and critics open to action through the state’s courts.
The proposed amendments, which would allow companies with more than 10 employees to sue individuals for spreading “false and misleading information”, have been condemned by publishers and media organisations because of concerns the amendments would silence the expression of dissent and opinion.
The Tasmanian Liberal government proposed the changes to allow the state’s forestry industry to challenge any false claims that could be made from environmental activists about their activities.
However, the move has the potential to weaken national defamation laws and, because of the ubiquitous nature of the internet, possibly enable national companies to take action through Tasmanian courts, further complicating the legal framework for publishers and broadcasters.
A major concern is the risk of action being taken against media companies and their representatives for publishing comments by a group which are proven to be untrue.
Australia has had uniform defamation laws since the national Defamation Act was passed in 2005, and changes to state laws in Tasmania would have a corollary effect on defamation litigation nationally.
Sydney law firm Marque Lawyers released a statement saying that the proposed changes will render “uniformity between the other states useless”.
“Uniformity in defamation laws is actually super important, especially in the days of internet publications and national news,” the statement said.
“That’s because the law says that you can potentially face a defamation action anywhere that a defamatory publication is read.
“If Tasmania changes its laws to allow corporate defamation, it’s going to become one of the most plaintiff-friendly defamation jurisdictions around.
“It won’t just see an increase in actions from Tasmanian plaintiffs. It will see a massive influx of actions from other parts of Australia and even the rest of the world.”
The Newspaper Works chief executive Mark Hollands said that the proposed changes were “ill-informed and unwarranted” and could create “a haven for litigious companies and individuals wishing to crush criticism and, therefore, freedom of expression and a free press.
“Publishers and journalists will be among those hit hardest. Community debate on all issues will be muted, or the individual participants will have to show incredible courage to risk defamation action.
“Publishers that print criticism, either in the course of community discussion on key issues, or as part of the political process during an election, risk being caught up in expensive and unjustified legal actions.
“Anyone who has been dragged through the courts for expressing their opinion, or revealing information they consider to be in the public interest, knows what an incredibly stressful and expensive experience this is.
“The newspaper industry condemns without reservation the intention of the Tasmanian Government to change its defamation laws and urges the Attorney-General to cease further action.”
Hobart-based daily newspaper, the Mercury, has campaigned strongly against the changes. Editor Matt Deighton told The Newspaper Works that his newspaper was concerned about moving from a situation where states had a broadly uniform approach to defamation laws to where there were changes state- by-state, “particularly with digital publishing crossing state boundaries”.
Mr Deighton acknowledged that it was “still early days”, as the legislation has not been tabled, but said that his newspaper would “vigorously oppose any moves which seek to lessen freedom of speech or the capacity of our reporters to fairly and accurately report different points of view.
“We would oppose any laws which aim to restrict what people feel they can say for threat of being sued. We don’t want a situation where companies are able to use the law to stifle debate.
“At first glance, the laws are unnecessary and out of step with the national – and I would suggest – international mood.
“But once the legislation is tabled we will be looking at it closely and formulating an official response both on behalf of the Mercury – and the wider News Corp company – as these laws would have national ramifications.”
Although the Liberal government has not confirmed when it will table the legislation, it has confirmed that it is currently working through the process of preparing the legislation.
“The government is working through an established process involving national laws and other jurisdictions,” a spokesperson for the Tasmanian government told The Newspaper Works.
“Further work, including drafting and tabling, will take place after that is concluded.”
A joint coalition of Australian media organisations intends to review the Tasmanian government’s proposed amendments, and will respond accordingly.
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