The Republic of Ireland has climbed one place to 12th in the latest press freedom index published by international non-profit Reporters Without Borders. But the organisation warned that press freedom in the State remained under threat from long delays to defamation law reform and a high concentration of media ownership.
The authors of the index, which includes an analysis of the prevailing conditions for journalism in 180 countries, also identified threats to the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland as one of the factors marring the press freedom record of the UK, which was ranked 33rd, up two places.
Journalists covering paramilitary activity and organised crime in the North “remain at serious risk” two years after the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry, with death threats frequently reported, it said.
Its analysis also notes the November 2020 agreement by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to pay damages of £875,000 to journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey following their 2018 arrest, later ruled "inappropriate" by Belfast judges, and the seizure of their journalistic materials.
The ranking was topped once more by Norway. The other countries judged to have better press freedom than the Republic were Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Jamaica, New Zealand, Portugal, Switzerland and Belgium.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), observed that the “long-standing promises” by successive Irish governments to reform the Defamation Act 2009 had been “left unfulfilled” by the Department of Justice last year.
This has helped to sustain “a prohibitive atmosphere for journalists reporting stories involving high-profile public figures and significant private interests”, it said.
Called-for reforms include limitations to the extremely high damages often placed on defendants, and abolition of jury-led defamation cases at the High Court.
“The continued lack of this much-needed defamation reform and disproportionately high defamation damages continued to present significant threats to press freedom in Ireland,” RSF said.
“The possibility of exorbitant damages, combined with the high costs of defending defamation suits, has resulted in a prolonged climate of self-censorship, in which prominent individuals known to be litigious have become largely untouchable by the Irish media.”
It added that the concentrated nature of the market also posed concerns for media plurality, with Independent News & Media (INM) controlling "much of the daily and Sunday newspaper market" and broadcasting dominated by State-owned RTÉ, itself "facing mounting financial burdens".