Restrictions on reporting of court cases ‘very worrying’

Measures mean only ‘bona fide journalists’ and lawyers can tweet or report from trials

The changes are seen as a response to commentary being made on live court cases – usually via social media – that have strayed beyond contemporaneous reporting. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

The changes are seen as a response to commentary being made on live court cases – usually via social media – that have strayed beyond contemporaneous reporting. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

 

New rules seeking to ensure that only bona-fide journalists and lawyers may report or tweet from court cases are very worrying, Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy has said.

The measures, announced at the weekend by Chief Justice Frank Clarke, come into effect next Monday, November 26th. They are seen as a direct response to commentary being made on live court cases – usually via social media and platforms such as YouTube – that have strayed beyond contemporaneous reporting.

Some of the comments made, and content purporting to be reportage produced during a trial over the 2014 Jobstown anti-water charges protest, was seen as particularly problematic.

Mr Murphy was one of a group of protesters acquitted for the alleged false imprisonment of former Labour Party leader Joan Burton and her assistant during the protest.

“In attempting to shore up the position of the mainstream media as the gatekeepers of information from the courts, it contravenes the administration of justice in public,” Mr Murphy said.

He added that he did not know if the changes were in direct response to the Jobstown trial but said he had been told Mr Justice Clarke had referenced the trial in a paper.

Fair trial

Media outlets are restricted to reporting what has been said in court. Any opinions or reportage that strays from contemporaneous reporting while a trial is ongoing could be deemed by a judge as undermining the impartiality and fairness of the trial process.

Trials can collapse and news outlets found in contempt of court for breaching these rules. When trials conclude, the media has more freedom to analyse a case without the risk of contaminating the trial process.

Judges who have presided over cases other than the Jobstown trial have also raised concerns about content being generated from their courtrooms for publication online.

In some cases bloggers and those using social media have suggested people on trial are innocent and have nominated others not before the courts as the guilty party. They have also suggested during cases that certain witnesses were lying.

Those making the comments are often in court listening to the evidence, but some appear to be unfamiliar with reporting practices and the risk of collapsing trials if commentary is seen as potentially influencing a jury.

Freedom of expression

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties also said the ban “could become problematic from the perspective of guaranteeing freedom of expression”.

“Defining who is and isn’t a bona-fide journalist could be difficult, particularly when considering the active and important role of citizen journalists,” its executive director, Liam Herrick, said.

Mr Justice Clarke said the potential for unregulated social media to have a negative impact on the fairness of the trial process itself “is a legitimate and particular concern of the judiciary”. The courts’ concern is “to ensure integrity of the trial process and maintenance of a fair trial system”.

He was addressing a seminar of journalists in Dublin, organised by the National Union of Journalists and the Courts Service, on the impact of social media on journalists and access to court documents.