Tasmania’s Liberal Government has scrapped controversial plans to restore the right of companies to sue for defamation, a move that threatened to render national laws ineffective and limit press freedoms.
The decision follows a concerted campaign by the Mercury in Hobart and protests by mainland publishers and industry body, The Newspaper Works.
The purpose of the changes was 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 had the potential to weaken national defamation laws and, because of the nature of the internet, possibly enable national companies to take action through Tasmanian courts, further complicating the legal framework for publishers and broadcasters.
It also placed journalists and publishers in danger of being sued over comments given in an interview, if they were proven to be untrue.
The subsequent backdown by the government has been hailed as a victory for free speech.
Attorney-General Vanessa Goodwin said yesterday a lack of support from interstate counterparts and the public concern aired through the Mercury were key reasons behind the government’s decision to abandon the laws.
When he started the campaign, Mercury editor Matt Deighton said his newspaper would vigorously oppose any moves that sought to lessen freedom of speech or the capacity of 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,” he said.
“The laws are unnecessary and out of step with the national – and I would suggest – international mood.”
In its editorial this morning, the Mercury said the decision to abandon the changes was the most prudent course of action “for a raft of reasons, not least because the proposal cut at the heart of the democratic principle of freedom of speech”.
It said the laws were ill-conceived and inadequately considered. “However, at a time governments across the nation are being criticised for failing to hear the people, Attorney-General Vanessa Goodwin has proven she has an ear to the ground and is listening.”
The CEO of The Newspaper Works, Mark Hollands, welcomed the reversal, and congratulated The Mercury’s “responsible and credible” campaign that influenced the outcome.
“It is a victory for common sense. It is also an example of the continued importance and influence of newspapers in our society.
“It takes some courage for an editor to run a campaign as hard as this was run – and I congratulate editor Matt Deighton and his staff for their leadership. The outcome is not only good news for Tasmania but the entire country.”
For more news from The Newspaper Works, click here.