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Confidentiality of sources may be at risk in Ireland

25 October 2011

The NUJ's Irish Secretary has written to the Chairman of the Referendum Commission seeking clarification of the implications for journalists of the 30th Amendment to the Irish Constitution.

The proposed amendment would allow the Oireachtas, "with due regard to the principles of fair procedure", to "determine the balance between the rights of persons and the public interest".

The NUJ's concerns centre on how the Oireachtas will define the public interest.

Séamus Dooley advised the Chairman Dr Bryan McMahon that the union has received a number of enquiries from members fearful of the implications for the practise of journalism, including the protection of confidential sources of information and confidential documentation in the possession of media organisations and individual journalists.

The NUJ has not taken a position in relation to the referendum and will not be making a specific recommendation as to how members should vote.

Séamus Dooley said:

"As a union representing professional journalists, we would be concerned at the prospect of the Oireachtas undermining the significant advances made in relation to the rights of journalists to protect confidential information, in the public interest. We have always favoured the concept of parliamentary inquiry and our concerns relate to the possible implications of the current proposed amendment.
"This should not be interpreted as opposition to the principle that elected representatives should have the power to carry out inquiries in appropriate circumstances and with appropriate safeguards. We will make the response of the Commission available as a guide to members."

The Supreme Court has vindicated the right of journalists to protect confidential sources of information in the public interest, notably in Mahon and Others v Keena and Kennedy, [2007] IEHC 348, High Court, 23 October 2007.

(Update 19 Nov. 2007)

The letter specifically asks:

In determining the balance what obligation is there upon the Oireachtas to take into account the findings of the Supreme Court, such as in Mahon and Others v Keena and Kennedy?

Can the Oireachtas set aside rights already upheld by the Supreme Court?

Are there circumstances in which, as a consequence of the proposed amendment, the Oireachtas could compel journalists to reveal the identity of confidential sources of information?

Are there circumstances in which, as a consequence of the proposed amendment, the Oireachtas could compel journalists to hand over material regarded as confidential?

Séamus Dooley added:

"In the event that the 30th amendment is accepted by the electorate, we will be seeking specific commitments from Government in relation to the protection of confidential journalistic sources of information.
"The enabling Bill could provide such protection, but, ultimately, it is for the courts to vindicate the Constitutional rights of every citizen."

Tags: , confidentiality, protection of sources, constitutional amendment, public interest, parliament ireland