Defamation laws hold media accountable

Ms Louisa Lim suggests in The New York Times that Australia's defamation laws have curtailed freedom of speech and the role of Australian media companies (How Australia became the defamation capital of the world, March 18).

She refers to the recent defamation suit from Chinese-born Australian businessman Chau Chak Wing against The Sydney Morning Herald, in which an Australian federal court found that a 2015 article about him was defamatory. She says this prevents the media from exploring the role of China in Australia.

Ms Lim does not seem to understand how libel laws operate. Media can write the truth. The media can also run commentaries, however unreasonable, based on a substratum of facts. The media cannot, however, wantonly destroy reputations and besmirch people based on untruths.

For example, Mr Chau cannot be called a Chinese agent without facts.

If the media writes untruths, the person who has been defamed must be able to clear his name. Seeking a ruling in court through an independent judiciary is one way to do so.

Ms Lim also points out that the allegations made against Mr Chau by the newspaper had been repeated in the Australian Parliament by MP Andrew Hastie. She argues this is inconsistent, since the lawmaker was protected by parliamentary privilege, but the same protection could not be accorded to The Sydney Morning Herald.

But that is what parliamentary privilege is about - to enable MPs, as elected representatives of the people, to raise matters of public interest in Parliament without risking a defamation suit. It is an overreach to argue that the same arrangement should be extended to all remarks made outside of Parliament.

In any case, it is not as if parliamentary privilege goes unchecked. MPs who abuse their privilege to make reckless allegations can be hauled up before the Committee of Privileges.

Freedom of speech cannot come at the expense of accountability and responsibility in journalism. We have seen the rise of fake news and the consequent erosion in trust in media establishments everywhere as well as the societal dangers it has posed.

That is a bigger threat to the well-being of a nation than the defamation laws Ms Lim argues against.

Malminderjit Singh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2019, with the headline 'Defamation laws hold media accountable'. Print Edition | Subscribe