Media Censorship during `the Troubles'

Article excerpt

A leading Irish journalist ponders the consequences.

Imagine, if you can, the following scenario happening in the United States. After more than a decade of censorship of radio and television coverage of a near-race war on the eastern seaboard, the union representing reporters in the electronic media finally summons the courage to challenge the federal government in the Supreme Court.

Instead of journalists celebrating this bid to restore freedom of speech, the reporter who doubles as the senior union official in CBS resigns in protest and angrily condemns his union leadership. No one in CBS or any other station raises a voice against him and, he becomes one of CBS's top stars.

The rules say that the court case has to be taken in the name of an individual journalist, but despite an extensive trawling operation in the mainstream media the union is unable to find anyone to volunteer. Top-flight reporters in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles are approached but each one says no. They are too frightened to take a stand. Finally someone agrees to put his name to the case, but this person is not a superstar with a face known to tens of millions. An unknown reporter for an obscure Spanish-speaking radio station in New Mexico carries the flag of press rights into battle instead.

In a country with as strong a First Amendment tradition as the United States, most journalists there would probably find it impossible to imagine such a thing happening in their own country or in any advanced Western democracy. Many would assume that events like those described above could only take place in some emerging democracy with no tradition of a free press.

They would be wrong, because this is exactly what happened in the civilized and supposedly democratic society of Ireland not very long ago. The reporter who resigned his office in the union, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), worked for RTE, the state radio and television company, and he is now the station's senior political correspondent. The man who eventually agreed to represent the NUJ in the challenge to our equivalent of the Supreme Court, the European Court for Human Rights, worked for a tiny Irish-speaking radio station in Galway, which is about as far away from Dublin and the center of the Irish media world as it is possible to go without getting your feet wet.

The NUJ lost its legal challenge in Europe, but events transpired to make their action redundant.

Thanks to the peace process in Northern Ireland the government in Dublin eventually dismantled the censorship laws in a move designed to edge the Provisional IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein into constitutional politics. Not long afterwards the British government abolished its own censorship regulations, and for the first time since 1976 coverage of events in Northern Ireland was officially untrammeled by state interference.

The Irish peace process has triggered a debate about the behavior of Britain and Ireland during the Troubles, particularly in regard to the way the actions of the police and military forces may have worsened the conflict. Debate on the role of the media has yet to start. Some might think that it is long overdue and, in particular, that reporters and editors should start to ponder whether acquiescence in the censorship of the Troubles only made the violence last longer.

Censorship has a long if not very honorable place in Irish history. The British imposed press controls during the 1919-21 war of independence, as did the pro-Treaty side in the subsequent Irish civil war. Newspapers were forbidden, for instance, to use words like "guerilla" to describe opponents of the new Irish government. Censorship lived on after the early Troubles. In the south of Ireland it took a less political and more religious form. The state censor was allowed to ban books and films on moral grounds, i.e. when they offended Catholic doctrine or values. …