Freedom of the Press
Media in Ireland are free to form and operate, and do not generally face undue pressure. However, blasphemy remains a criminal offense, and high concentration of ownership affects plurality and competitiveness in the sector.
- In January 2015, the government announced that a referendum on removing blasphemy from the constitution would not be held until after the 2016 general elections.
- In June, the government published media merger guidelines to better regulate the effects of mergers on plurality of both ownership and content; the guidelines will only apply to future deals, and will not affect existing concentration.
Legal Environment: 5 / 30
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.
Blasphemy is considered a criminal act under the 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 ($27,500). A referendum on removing the blasphemy clause from the constitution has been on the agenda since a constitutional convention recommended in 2013 to replace the provision with a general clause on incitement of religious hatred. In January 2015, the government announced that the vote would not be held until after the 2016 general elections.
A reformed freedom of information law has been in effect since October 2014. The legislation established a maximum fee of €500 ($550) for requests, expanded the number of state agencies that must release information, and reduced the time period in which government records are exempt from 10 years to five. Since the implementation of these changes, the government has also eliminated the €15 application fee for non-personal information requests, with some rare exceptions. In May 2015, authorities reported an average increase of 16 percent in request submissions after the abolition of the fee. A number of limits to access remain, particularly for files held by police, who are only obliged to release administrative records.
The Broadcasting Act of 2009 established the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, which oversees the public-service broadcasters, allocates public funding, and promotes accountability.
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. 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. The dominant Irish newspapers are members of the council.
Political Environment: 6 / 40
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 Síochána Act, police can face fines of up to €75,000 ($83,000), lose their jobs, or receive up to seven years in prison for speaking with the media without prior authorization. Amendments to the Act in 2015 empowered the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission to investigate such claims, including by accessing journalists’ phone records. Investigative journalists report that 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.
Economic Environment: 6 / 30 (↓1)
Ireland has strong and competitive print media, led by the privately owned Irish Independent and Irish Times. The public-service broadcaster, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), 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. About 80 percent of the Irish population used the internet in 2015, and there are no government restrictions on access.
Debate over the concentration of media ownership is often focused on Denis O’Brien, who controls a commanding share of Independent News and Media (INM) as well as interests in many other industries. INM accounts for 40 percent of national newspaper sales and owns a host of radio stations, with a combined audience share of 30 percent. The absence of specific legislation on media concentration has often been deemed a concern. The Competition and Consumer Protection Act, which took effect in October 2014, aims to assess the anticipated effects of proposed media mergers on the plurality of both ownership and content. In June 2015, the government published media merger guidelines that define a stake of 20 percent in a media enterprise (reduced to 10 percent in some cases) as a “significant interest” that would require increased scrutiny in case of a proposed merger. The communications minister has final say on whether a merger can proceed, after an assessment by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The regulations apply across the print, broadcast, and online media sectors. However, because they are not retroactive, existing concentration of media ownership will not be affected.