Despite a transition to greater media pluralism in 2021, continued delays to long-awaited defamation reform restricted press freedom in Ireland. Concerns also remained about the future funding of the media, including public service broadcaster RTÉ.
The high concentration of media ownership in Ireland has had a longstanding negative impact on the country’s press freedom record; however, 2021 saw a welcome transition to greater pluralism. Media ownership in Ireland has long been dominated by businessman Denis O’Brien, but selling his shares of the Independent News & Media (INM) in 2019 and then finalising the sale of Communicorp in 2021 has opened up the media landscape to greater competition and diversity.
The Future of Media Commission, established by the Dáil Éireann (the Irish Assembly) in October 2020, continued throughout 2021; however, the commission has once again fallen short in delivering tangible outcomes. The commission was due to release its first report in the summer of 2021, but at the end of the year the report had still not been published, delaying crucial debates and policy decisions about the funding of public service broadcaster RTÉ, as well as other local and national media.
The Defamation Act 2009 continues to restrict freedom of the press in Ireland, where the possibility of obtaining exorbitant damages, coupled with defence costs, has fueled a trend of self-censorship. Despite promises of imminent publication, the government report on the reforms needed to the law was still awaited at the end of 2021. The requested reforms include limitations on damages imposed on defendants and the abolition of juries in defamation cases.
Irish broadcasters and media outlets faced considerable financial trouble in 2021. Regional titles continue to experience financial difficulty, while serious concerns were raised about the funding of Ireland's national public service broadcaster RTÉ. Had it not been for government funding, almost all members of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) reportedly came “critically close” to shutting down radio stations due to the decline in advertising revenue caused by the pandemic.
Journalists in Ireland are largely free to work without significant cultural constraints. The abolition of blasphemy by referendum in 2018, which took effect in 2020, was a welcome step, decriminalising the publication of “blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter ” and abolishing the offence of defamation of any religion – a welcome step forward.
On occasion, Irish journalists have reported that their safety was threatened by criminal groups. But no significant cases were reported in 2021. Interviewing police sources has been virtually impossible since the Garda Siochana Act of 2005, which bans police officers from talking to journalists without prior authorisation. Officers contravening the ban risk dismissal, a fine, or up to seven years in prison.