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Countdown to world press freedom day: no free press; no democracy

1 May 2014

The vital role of journalism in democratic society was stressed by the Mrs Justice Susan Denham, Chief Justice of Ireland, at an NUJ seminar held in Dublin to mark World Press Freedom Day.

She said the presence of the media in every court at every level, is vital not only to the rule of law – but to democracy itself.

"It is vital that the people have access to such proceedings via a vibrant and free media. That the media does so in such an excellent manner is well recognised, maybe not by all of us, all of the time, but by many of us most of the time"

She told the seminar, which included speakers Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary; Kevin Bakhurst, managing director RTÉ news and current affairs; Professor John Horgan, press ombudsman; and Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary, that the media had a role in setting the political agenda and that it had huge importance in holding those in power to account.

"This is a great power - which comes with a great responsibility. Therefore, having a plurality of media, a plurality of voices, views, dissension, facts, experts, vox pops, voices, pictures, data, and sound and vision mixes in our media, is vital, if we are to make sense of the vortex of modern life."

In order to do this, journalism needed to work within an ethical frame, she said, going on to cite the NUJ's role:

"The strength of the ethics of the profession of journalism is supported by the Code of Conduct of the National Union of Journalists, and which greatly inform the Press Councils guidelines and code also. On this ethical foundation the necessary inquiring mind of a journalist - which leads to investigation where others will not go – may flourish, to the benefit of the public."

Michelle Stanistreet told the seminar that many journalists put their lives at risk when doing their job and that it was time the international community acted on the words they signed in international protocols, which said they would safeguard press freedom. The majority of journalists who are killed, harassed and intimidated are local journalists trying to report local news. But too often, the killers of journalists are not brought to justice.

She said:

"The IFJ has been gathering statistics for the last 15 years and every year it publishes on 1 January the list of journalists and media workers killed in the preceding 12months. 2013 was one of the bloodiest, with 105 journalists killed in 32 countries with Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Philippines and India topping the list.
"From a trade union perspective, we know that the real solution to impunity is for governments to start rigorously applying their laws against murder to the killers of journalists. That would send the starkest of messages to those prepared to go to the ultimate and most extreme lengths to silence journalists, and the inevitable consequential threat to press freedom that fear and self-censorship creates in the societies we operate in."

Séamus Dooley, NUJ Irish Secretary, said there was much to celebrate in Irish journalism.

"Yes, we sometimes get it wrong but the standard of journalism in Ireland is extremely high and most professional practitioners operate within an ethical framework and are motivated by the public interest. The miracle of Irish journalism is, I would contend, the fact that journalists continue to succeed in breaking stories, in shining a light in dark corners, in the face of many adversities."

But, over the past five years, he said, there have been threats to the quality of Irish journalism and the ability for journalists to do their jobs from the slashing of as editorial budgets.This meant that often reporters are no longer able to cover the courts and council meetings, often having to rely on court and council officials to learn about developments.

Professor John Horgan, the press ombudsman who retires this year, discussed his role in the development of the regulation of the press and the balance that is needed between privacy and the press's right to know. He went on to say:

"Press freedom is typically understood to mean with freedom from state control. So far, so good. But perhaps it is also time to discuss the elephant in the room. This is the inescapable fact that, where the press is concerned, the power – the unacknowledged power - of the market is, if anything, greater than the power of the state, and that it is a power which needs to be seriously considered in any discussion of the freedom and the responsibility of the press."

He said the market can act as a censor of the press, "a permanent, sharp but invisible limitation on the power of the press which insufficiently scrutinised, by the press itself or by anyone else".

Read the full speeches:

Speech by Chief Justice of Ireland Mrs Justice Susan Denham

Speech by Michelle Stanistreet

Speech by Séamus Dooley

Speech by Professor John Horgan

Tags: , world press freedom day, ifj, dublin, law, democracy, press freedom, rté, john horgan, ethics, cuts, privacy, courts, regulation