Dark Cloud Descending

An evening or two back I found myself ruminating on censorship in Egypt. In truth there is not much need to go to Cairo in search of censors. They infest climes closer to home. In Belfast, given half a chance, they would congregate on tiptoes at the shoulders of its denizens just to have a quare auld gawk at what citizens might be reading.

Not too long back a graduate of the class of 1690 stepped up to the plate equipped with a good dollop of backward thinking. His goal, to reinforce the curbs on free speech. Not exactly the stuff of the Enlightenment. Sammy Wilson, ironically not the bible bashing type, nevertheless would appear to believe that the mullahs - there is no shortage of the type in his party - might have a thing or two that he could make use of. Wilson was explaining the decision not to permit the extension of the Defamation bill to the North from Britain.

The bill would have made it more diffcult for the powerful to muzzle the media with the threat of libel. Three anti-censorship activists raised concerns that:

If Northern Ireland does not update its law of libel, libel tourists such as corrupt businessmen, powerful vested interests and global corporations may begin to use the High Court in Belfast to silence their critics.

Wilson seems unconcerned with this, waffling that:

Our law of defamation is largely covered by the common law, rather than statute, and it could be argued that the flexibility which the common law offers is an advantage in that it allows the law to be quickly adapted or developed to address new issues, including any issues which may arise on foot of the proposed changes to the law in England and Wales.

For a party always protesting its Britishness it seems some British law is unwelcome in the fetid fiefdom.

Democratically, things are pretty threadbare in the North without it needing to be pushed back even further. Wilson it seems took the decision himself: 'It wasn't in the system very long... and someone somewhere prompted Sammy to withdraw it without consideration.' The North is now susceptible to the demands of those insisting on a regime of 'hush.'

Mike Harris from Index on Censorship assessed it this way:

This is a good piece of legislation which will end the international humiliation from our libel laws, which have been proven by the United Nations Human Rights Committee to chill free speech. It would be perverse if this vital legislation was kept out of Northern Ireland without even being debated in the Assembly. Northern Ireland’s politicians should be called to account for why they don’t think the people of Northern Ireland deserve the same protections for free speech as other countries ... All previous defamation acts have applied to Northern Ireland ... Our concern is that Northern Ireland will continue to have antiquated libel laws and become a libel tourism capital where cases that can’t be taken in England will be taken to Belfast.
Coming on the heels of Peter Robinson's outburst against the Irish News which he called on people not to read 'simply for asking legitimate questions about the spending of taxpayers' money', this sustained wilful erosion of the ability for enhanced public understanding is emblematic of a more censorious climate descending like a dark cloud on the North.

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