With the ballot box in one hand and libel laws in the other…

Over in the Guardian, Rory Carroll writes about Sinn Féin’s legal actions against several media outlets and individual journalists. From the article:

In Ireland, Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, is suing the national broadcaster RTÉ for defamation, while her husband, Martin Lanigan, is suing the author of a biography of McDonald. Chris Andrews, a Sinn Féin member of Ireland’s parliament, is suing the Irish Times and one of its reporters.

In Northern Ireland, Gerry Kelly, a Sinn Féin member of the Stormont assembly, is suing two media commentators. John Finucane, a Sinn Féin MP, is suing a unionist councillor over Twitter claims. Michelle O’Neill, the party’s deputy leader, recently sued another unionist councillor over a Facebook post.

As the number of Sinn Féin legal actions has grown – there are believed to be at least eight active cases against media outlets, with additional cases against political opponents – concern has mounted that the party is attempting to intimidate critics and stifle scrutiny.

A coalition of press freedom organisations last week said the party’s actions had the hallmark of strategic lawsuits against public participation, or Slapps, a form of legal harassment intended to intimidate and silence public watchdogs.

“The number of legal actions that have been filed by Sinn Féin members points to a coordinated campaign against the media in Ireland,” said the joint letter signed by Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists, Pen International, Article 19 and other groups.

It expressed alarm that the action against the Irish Times – over an article about Sinn Féin’s response to the Hamas attacks in Israel last month – named a reporter. “The fact that Sinn Féin’s most recent legal action has been filed against journalist Harry McGee – as an individual – gives credence to the idea that it is intended to chill public interest speech.”

The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, accused Sinn Féin of trying to “take away” Ireland’s democracy through threats. “It’s designed to make journalists afraid. It’s designed to make them think twice about what they write, and I think it’s wrong,” he told the Dáil.

Sinn Féin was the IRA’s political wing during the Troubles and is now Ireland’s biggest opposition party. Opinion polls suggest it is on track to lead the next government. It is the biggest party in Northern Ireland.

A party spokesperson said McDonald had no intention of responding to “inaccurate suggestions” in the press freedom coalition letter and said public discourse should be based on fact and truth. “All citizens have the right to protect their name and reputation, and such fundamental legal rights in no way cut across or undermine robust political debate.”

The spokesperson said the letter seemed to hold Sinn Féin to a higher standard than the two main ruling parties. “It is interesting that the same concerns are not being expressed to Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, given dozens of current and former Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael representatives have taken or threatened legal action against media outlets.”

At a Sinn Féin conference earlier this month, McDonald said the party did not consider itself above scrutiny and critique. “Criticism is all part of the cut and thrust of the democratic process,” she said.

Index on Censorship, a London-based watchdog, said other parties also threatened and took legal action but not on the same scale. “We are not aware of members of any other Irish party taking a comparable number of concurrent cases against the media in recent years.”

Last year the group filed media freedom alerts to the Council of Europe over McDonald’s action against RTÉ and Kelly’s action against the Northern Ireland commentators Malachi O’Doherty and Ruth Dudley Edwards.

O’Neill, the party’s deputy leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister-elect, won a libel action against a Democratic Unionist party councillor, John Carson, who in 2021 posted that she would be “put back in her kennel”. However, a high court ruled she would receive no payout because the remark, though offensive and misogynistic, had had no adverse impact on O’Neill’s reputation.

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