Seven years after the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin, the safety of journalists investigating crime is once again a matter of concern as gang activity increases in Dublin. Amendments to the freedom of information law have also limited journalists’ access to public records.
The government arrested more than 150 people from the criminal underworld in the wake of the June 1996 murder in Dublin of Veronica Guerin, crime reporter of the Sunday Independent, who had had death threats and been physically attacked several times. But gang violence in Dublin soared in 2003, sparking renewed fears for the safety of journalists. Paul Williams, a crime and drug trafficking reporter for the Sunday World, received very disturbing threats.
The government also said it would reform the law on defamation, which was seen as a danger to press freedom. In October, the Independent Newspaper Group complained to the European Court of Human Rights that the very heavy fines facing the media in libel and slander cases created a climate of fear that restricted journalists in their work. Reform of the Freedom of Information Act, which guaranteed press freedom, was sharply criticised since it now obstructs journalists’ access to public data.
In September, justice minister Michael McDowell proposed to parliament jail terms of up to five years for police who leaked information, especially to the media.
Five journalists arrested
Four photographers, including Colin Keegan, of the daily Irish Mirror, and reporter Fergal Keane of the state-funded TV station RTE, were arrested on 7 February for allegedly disturbing the peace by crossing a barrier erected around the scene of a crime in Dublin. The journalists, who denied doing so, were freed a few hours later and no charges were brought. Four of them filed a complaint against the police for harassment.
A journalist threatened
A bomb without a fuse was found on 14 November under the car of Paul Williams, deputy editor of the weekly Sunday World, as it was parked outside his Dublin home. He and his family were given police protection. Two weeks earlier, acid had been thrown at the car, again in front of his home. He said the outlawed Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), which he was investigating, was probably responsible. Williams, who reports on organised crime, has written several books on Dublin gangs and drug and prostitution rackets.
Harassment and obstruction
The lower house of parliament, the Dail, amended the 1997 Freedom of Information Act on 1 April 2003, limiting journalists’ access to public records. They now have to pay 15 euros to seek permission to look at government and court documents, including minutes and internal ministry communications deemed to be of public interest. An appeal against refusal costs 75 euros, whatever the result of the appeal. Material cannot be accessed before it is 10 years old (instead of five previously) and the authorities are allowed to deny, or not confirm, the existence of confidential documents.