Freedom of the Press
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Press freedom is guaranteed in Ireland’s 1937 constitution and generally respected in practice. However, archaic defamation laws continue to place the burden of proof on defendants. The 2009 Defamation Act reduced the timeframe for bringing civil suits after a defamatory statement is made from six years to one; it also included the option for media outlets to issue an apology without admitting to libel.
In July 2014, the 1991 Criminal Damage Act was used in a landmark case involving a defendant who posted defamatory statements about his ex-wife from her Facebook account in 2011. The defendant was fined €2,000 ($3,600), though the act allows up to 10 years in prison for intentional damage to another person’s property. The ruling was controversial because it suggested that damage to a person’s reputation could lead to criminal sanction, despite the abolition of criminal liability for defamation in the 2009 Defamation Act.
Blasphemy is considered a criminal act under the 1937 constitution, but there were no legal means for prosecution until 2009, when the Defamation Act established blasphemy as an offense punishable with fines of up to €25,000 ($33,000). Article 36 of the law states that “a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matter held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial amount of the adherents of that religion, and he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.” In October 2014, cabinet minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin confirmed that a referendum would be held on removing the blasphemy clause from the constitution. This decision followed recommendations made by a constitutional convention in 2013 to replace the provision with a general clause on incitement of religious hatred. The referendum had yet to be scheduled at year’s end.
The Freedom of Information Act of 2014 came into effect in October, replacing the 1997 Freedom of Information Act and its 2003 amendment. The new act reduces exemptions of government records to five years, establishes a maximum fee of €500 ($650) for requests, and expands the number of state agencies that must release information. While the reduction in fees was viewed as a positive step, there are still limits on the public’s access to files held by the police, who are only obliged to release administrative records, with exemptions for security reasons.
The Broadcasting Act of 2009 established the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, which oversees the public-service broadcasters, allocates public funding, and promotes accountability. The act expanded the role of the former Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, which had no responsibility for public-service broadcasting.
In 2008, the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman were set up to safeguard and promote the professional and ethical standards of newspapers and other periodicals, including through the establishment of a mandatory Code of Practice for member organizations. The public can bring complaints against member publications to the Office of the Press Ombudsman, and appeals of the ombudsman’s decisions are adjudicated by the Press Council, which may also hear significant or complicated cases directly. The Press Council is recognized by law under the Defamation Act of 2009, meaning those newspapers and magazines that choose to be regulated by it have certain legal advantages. This statutory underpinning was established following a consultative process involving the National Union of Journalists, representatives of newspapers owners, and others within the media industry. Media organizations that opt out could face difficulties in dealing with legal complaints, as they must convince the courts that they operate by the same standards.
Journalists can generally report freely, without political pressure, harassment, or the need for self-censorship. However, reporters have encountered obstacles in attempting to access officials as sources, particularly in the police service. Under Ireland’s 2005 Garda Siochána Act, police can face fines of up to €75,000 ($98,000), lose their jobs, or receive up to seven years in prison for speaking with the media without prior authorization. Investigative journalists say they are routinely questioned by police after breaking stories that indicate the use of a police source. In past years, journalists have reported that their investigative work was compromised due to police queries about sources and police contacts, as well as threats of arrest for failing to reveal sources. In March 2014, it was revealed that the police had been secretly recording phone calls to and from police stations, from the late 1980s through November 2013. The government set up a commission to review the implications of these recordings, which could have included communications between journalists and sources.
Physical attacks directed at journalists are rare. In November 2014, Sinn Féin political party leader Gerry Adams publicly joked about holding an editor of the Irish Independent at gunpoint. Local and international press freedom watchdogs condemned his remarks, which he did not withdraw.
Ireland has strong and competitive print media, led by the privately owned Irish Independent and Irish Times. The public-service broadcaster RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) dominates the radio and television sectors but provides a comprehensive and balanced news service. RTÉ receives competition from both private and British television channels. Ireland also has more than 50 licensed radio stations. Nearly 80 percent of the Irish population used the internet in 2014, and there are no government restrictions on access.
Debate over the concentration of media ownership and a lack of content diversity continued in 2014. The O’Reilly family had directly controlled Ireland’s largest media company—Independent News and Media (INM)—for 39 years, until Gavin O’Reilly resigned as chief executive in 2012. Denis O’Brien, INM’s largest single shareholder with a 29.9 percent stake, now controls the company. Because O’Brien has business interests in many other industries, there are ongoing concerns that he will exert undue influence over content.
The Competition and Consumer Protection Act, which took effect in October 2014, aims to assess the anticipated effect of proposed media mergers on the plurality of both ownership and content. In December, the government published draft merger guidelines under the law that would allow a stake of as little as 10 percent to be defined as a “significant interest” in a given media enterprise, meaning any merger involving the same owner would face increased scrutiny. The communications minister will have final say on whether a merger can proceed, after an assessment is made by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The law applies across print, broadcast, and online media outlets. However, because it is not retroactive, existing media structures will not be reassessed under the new rules.