The Association of European Journalists held their 45th Annual Congress in Dublin Castle over the weekend. On Saturday, 10 November 2007, the morning session considered the theme:
50 years later: The EU in a shrinking world
And they, lucky people, heard a speech by An Taoiseach (blogged here; reported here, here and here (Irish Times sub req’d)) in which he said that a referendum on the Lisbon Reform Treaty is likely be held in the first half of 2008. (He had previously addressed the Irish Branch of the AEJ in 2005 (reported here), as have several of his Ministers since: Minister of State Treacy in 2007, and Minister Ryan in 2007 – also here).
Of greater interest, the afternoon session considered the theme
Freedom of the Media
The special guest was Miklos Haraszti, Representative for Freedom of the Media in the OSCE. According to an article by Marie O’Halloran in today’s Irish Times (sub req’d), he urged that Ireland should “show the rest of the world and create a wonderful example” by becoming the first western EU state to drop legislation that allows for the jailing of journalists for defamation. He said that said section 34 of the Defamation Bil, 2006 was “very progressive” and abolished common law offences of criminal, seditious and obscene libel, but section 35 allowed for a sentence of up to five years for the publication of “gravely harmful statements”. He said that the majority of journalists jailed in central and eastern Europe were imprisoned for defamation and a move by Ireland to drop such legislation would be a “wonderful gesture” and a great example, especially to central and eastern Europe.
The meeting discussed the current state of the law relating to journalists’ sources in Ireland; on how Ireland lines up against the rest of the world (not very well), see Privacy International’s survey Silencing Sources: An International Survey of Protections and Threats to Journalists’ Sources.
Also speaking at the same event, the Press Ombudsman, Prof John Horgan, said a that major issue in the media was privacy, which was “not as simple as journalists or politicians or others need it to be”.
In another important development, the AEJ published its first ever Survey of Media Freedom across Europe, entitled Goodbye to Freedom? (.doc), at the Congress (see press press release | reports here and here (sub req’d)). It covers 20 countries in eastern and western Europe and highlights evidence that media freedom in Europe is threatened by restrictive laws, hidden political and commercial pressures, threats of jail, intimidation and in some cases even murder. OECD Representative Haraszti welcomed the Survey as a warning to people all over Europe of the multiple dangers and threats to media freedom and freedom of expression in their own continent. The chapter on Ireland (.doc), prepared by Joe Carroll, predictably welcomed the Press Council but highlighted concerns relating to the protection of sources.
Taking up some of these themes, speaking on RTE’s The Week in Politics last night (reported in the Irish Examiner today), the Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan, said he would move ahead with defamation reforms which have generally been welcomed by the media, and that he would wait to see how the new Press Council operates before deciding whether to reintroduce the more controversial Privacy Bill, 2006. This is an important development, confirming as it does recent supposition as to the fate of both Bills. The enactment of the Defamation Bill cannot come quickly enough.