SCOTTISH ministers have been warned that delaying proposed defamation laws “risks giving cover to wealthy and powerful interests”.

Campaigners, backed by The Herald, have been lobbying hard for Scotland to follow England and Wales to protect investigative journalists and social media users from unfair legal action.

The Scottish Law Commission has already drafted a bill that could be put to Parliament. SNP ministers have announced a new round of consultation, sparking concerns such a bill will not make the coming year’s Programme For Government.

Writing in The Herald today, Nik Williams, project manager of Scottish PEN, the freedom of expression group, warned delays would mean another year during which criticism could be silenced.

Mr Williams said: “Whether it is a Facebook group moderator , a land reform expert scrutinising the financial and business practices of private companies, journalists uncovering secrets embedded in our society or scientists attempting to scrutinise research and challenge false assertions – defamation law dictates how free these individuals are to challenge power and inform the public.

“If defamation offers no significant protections for free expression or continues to prioritise the interests of pursuers, public discourse, journalism and civic engagement will suffer.”

The Scottish Law Commission had stressed its aim was to bring unreformed defamation law into the digital era. It had suggested a “serious harm” test to try and stop the wealthy from using trivial matters to threaten reporters – or even people who blog or make comments on line.

Campaigner and Green MSP Andy Wightman said: “I am pleased Scottish ministers intend to consult on the Scottish Law Commission’s proposals for defamation law reform.

“Given that a draft bill already exists and has been the subject of consultation by the Commission before publication in December 2017, there is no reason why the First Minister cannot confirm in September’s Programme for Government that legislation will be brought forward in 2018/19.

“Far too many people are unsure of where the law stands and this is having a chilling effect on writers, artists and publishers, as well as causing uncertainty of the prospects of success by those who believe they have been defamed.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this year said defamation reform was “a sensitive area, an area where for very understandable reasons there are strong views and strong feelings”.

She highlighted several proposals as controversial, including a serious harm test – ensuring there are not frivolous or vexatious cases taken against newspapers or even social media users. She added: “There are some quite thorny issues it is important to get right.”

Actual defamation actions in Scotland are rare, but threats of action are not.