Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has said he is "profoundly concerned" at the level of coverage RTÉ has given the upcoming referendum on the establishment of a court of appeal.
Mr Shatter told The Irish Times last night that, in his view, it appeared the public service broadcaster had misunderstood a court judgment on referendum coverage and was engaging in "an extraordinarily self-imposed act of self-censorship which is contrary to the public interest".
“I find it extraordinary that RTÉ on their six o’clock TV bulletin failed to make any mention whatsoever of the referendum being held to establish a court of appeal,” the Minister said.
“RTÉ has a public service broadcasting obligation and it appears to me that they are suffering from a degree of legal confusion with regard to how to deal with a referendum in respect of which there is no major public opposition.”
A 50/50 rule on referendum coverage has been implemented in the past on divisive subjects such as EU treaties.
The rule arises from the Supreme Court's 1995 McKenna judgment which states that taxpayers' money cannot be used to promote one side in a referendum. The ruling was seen to have stymied debate last year in relation to the children's rights referendum, for which there was widespread support.
Political parties and Independent TDs are all in agreement that the court of appeal referendum should be carried when it is put to the public on October 4th. It is being put to the public alongside the Seanad abolition referendum, which Mr Shatter said had received plenty of coverage.
The Referendum Commission chair Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne last week said she hoped there would be greater public discussion of the court of appeal vote before polling day.
Mr Shatter said it was clear that the court had expressed a view that RTÉ must provide balanced coverage of arguments in favour and against constitutional change at the time of referendums.
However, he added that “at no stage did the court state that where there is no identifiable opposition to a proposal to constitution change, RTÉ are barred from conducting interviews or reporting comment by Government Ministers or others who detail the reason to support constitutional change.”
"I am profoundly concerned that if RTÉ continues to deal with this referendum in this manner, the general public will be deprived of crucial information to enable them to understand why the Government is proposing a constitutional amendment to create constitutional change."
In a statement, RTÉ News and Current Affairs said it was "very aware of its public service remit to inform the electorate about what they will be voting on" on October 4th.
"Our coverage of both the Seanad and the court of appeal referenda is just gearing up. The coming weeks will see reporting across the main news bulletins, Prime Time, The Week in Politics and radio news programmes."
The passing of the referendum would allow for an amendment of article 34 of the Constitution to provide for the establishment of the court.
The need for a court of appeal arises mainly from the backlog of cases before the Supreme Court, with the average delay for new non-priority cases now of the order of four years.
The new court of appeal would cover criminal and civil matters. It would sit much more frequently than the existing Court of Criminal Appeal.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin yesterday said he believed there was "overwhelming support" for the court of appeal and that he felt the Government's unpopularity, which he said was at an all-time high, was the only potential hurdle to the passing of the referendum.