Society heralds overturning of Northern Ireland anonymity law as “huge victory” for press freedom

Posted on: May 31, 2024 by Claire Meadows

The Society of Editors has described the overturning of a law in Northern Ireland which granted anonymity to sex offence suspects as a “huge victory” for press freedom.

The ruling, which was handed down in the High Court today, followed widespread criticism of the legislation which granted anonymity to suspects in sexual offence cases for 25 years after their death and was previously described by the Society as legislation that would have prevented the reporting of allegations against Jimmy Savile in Northern Ireland.

The ruling followed a challenge to the controversial legislation by Mediahuis, publisher of the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Sunday World, Sunday Independent and the Irish Independent, who sought a judicial review of the Act. A separate challenge to the lifetime anonymity clause was also taken on behalf of the BBC, Times Media Ltd, Guardian News and Media Ltd and other London-based organisations.

Ruling today that the legislation was incompatible with press rights to freedom of expression, Mr Justice Humphreys said that it was beyond Stormont’s legislative competence to introduce the controversial Act which had the “chilling effect” of imposing a criminal sanction on public interest journalism.

Responding to today’s ruling, Dawn Alford, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said: “Today’s ruling that relevant sections of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 are incompatible with press rights is a huge victory for press freedom.

“The legislation, which set a dangerous precedent for restrictions elsewhere, was not only an affront to open justice but would have had a devastating long-term effect on the reporting of sexual abuse allegations and the willingness of victims to come forward.

“Today’s decision is not only a victory for media freedom and the survivors of sexual violence who wish to tell their stories but also for common sense. The media has a duty to investigate and report on legitimate allegations on behalf of the public and now that this law has been overturned, they will be free to continue doing so.”

Ruling on the challenge, Mr Justice Humphreys said that the imposition of a criminal sanction on public interest journalism, and the “chilling effect” it would have, represented an interference with Article 10 rights which required the “most anxious scrutiny”.

Concluding that editors and broadcasters should not be exposed to the threat of prosecution and conviction without an opportunity to make the case that it was in the public interest to name a suspected sex offender he said that “public interest journalism serves a vital role in any democratic society”.

He added: “The role of the press as watchdog, and the role of journalists in facilitating and prompting police investigations is fully evidenced in these cases.

“There were clear shortcomings in the consideration of the Article 10 rights of organisations such as the applicants throughout the legislative process.

“There was no debate around the issue of the public interest, relevant to the anonymity of suspects, nor any consideration of the need for a fair balance of rights.”

Photo: Sam McBride, Aeneas Bonner, Martin Breen and Fergal McGoldrick at the High Court on May 31st 2024 (Photo by Kevin Scott)