The Irish Supreme Court has upheld the right of journalists to keep the identity of their sources secret, citing the protection given to journalists by the European Convention on Human Rights in the name of freedom of expression. The Editor of the Irish Times and another journalist had faced the threat of jail for refusing to reveal the source of an article about payments to the former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern.
The five-judge court decided in favour of Geraldine Kennedy, Editor of The Irish Times and a reporter, Colm Keena, so they will not have to appear before the special Mahon Tribunal to be questioned about their sources. It was Keena’s report on September 21st, 2006, revealing that then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was being investigated by the Tribunal about payments to him when Minister for Finance in 1993, which sparked this effort to make the newspaper reveal its documentation and sources.
The Supreme Court thus reversed an earlier High Court judgement that the two journalists should go before the Tribunal for questioning. Ireland’s top court found that an order to compel the journalists to face questioning on the issue could be justified only by “an overriding requirement in the public interest”. That did not appear to exist in this case, the judges said. .
The ruling is seen as a landmark for freedom of the press in Ireland, as it is the first time the protection of sources has been upheld in the case law of the country’s highest court.
It follows another high-profile victory for journalists’ right not to have to reveal their sources in neighbouring Northern Ireland. In June a court in Belfast dismissed a prosecutors’ demand that journalist Suzanne Breen of the Sunday Tribune must face a fine or jail unless she gave up details of phone contacts she had with the Real IRA organisation. On the basis of those contacts she wrote an article revealing that the Real IRA admitted responsibility for the killing of two British army soldiers earlier this year.
The two court rulings have helped to firm up the principle of journalistic protection of sources, which is enshrined, although with conditions, in the European Convention and related national laws in Council of Europe member states.