Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy and the newspaper’s Public Affairs correspondent Colm Keena were today ordered by the Irish High Court to testify before a tribunal on the source of a story about payments to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
The two prominant journalists had refused to disclose the origin of the report that rocked the leader’s premiership last year.
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The pair are now considering their reponse to a High Court ruling compelling them to appear before the Mahon Tribunal – investigating planning corruption – to answer questions about the article.
The National Union of Journalists said today’s ruling could have serious implications for journalism and democracy in Ireland.
The report in the Irish Times on 21 September last year was based on a leaked letter from tribunal investigators to a businessman about cash payments to Ahern in 1993 when he was Finance Minister.
The tribunal contacted the newspaper claiming it was in breach of a Supreme Court injunction the year before prohibiting the publication of confidential information relating to the hearings.
The journalists destroyed the leaked documents requested by the tribunal and refused to answer questions about their origins when they appeared before the hearings at Dublin Castle.
In a strongly-worded 37-page ruling, the High Court accused Kennedy and Keena of “an astounding and flagrant disregard of the rule of law” that if tolerated could lead to anarchy.
“In so doing the defendants cast themselves as the adjudicators of the proper balance to be struck between the rights and interests of all concerned,” the three-judge panel stated.
“The defendants then proceeded to determine the issue summarily in their own favour, without any consideration of the rights of others or any opportunity given to them to make their case known.
“It need hardly be said, that such a manner of proceeding is anathema to the rule of law and an affront to democratic order. If tolerated it is the surest way to anarchy.”
The High Court insisted there was a “pressing social need” for the tribunal to establish if the leak came from within its own ranks.
“At this stage, having regard to the destruction of the documents, the only means remaining to pursue that aim is by way of the proposed questioning of the defendants,” the judgment stated.
Seamus Dooley, the NUJ’s Irish secretary, said he was dismayed, disappointed and gravely concerned by the ruling.
“The protection of confidential sources of information is of vital importance to investigative journalism and any judgment which undermines the right of journalists to protect confidential sources has serious implications for all journalists and for democratic society,” he said.
“Clearly the issue of an appeal to the Supreme Court in this case will be a matter for The Irish Times and the NUJ would be supportive of such an appeal.”
Outside the High Court in central Dublin, Kennedy said she was disappointed by the ruling.
“This always was a very important matter in the public interest as was the decision to publish this story that the Taoiseach Mr Ahern received monies from businessmen while he was Minister for Finance,” she said.
“The judgment in these circumstances is disappointing. I’m surprised that it doesn’t deal more with the matter of the public interest.”
The National Newspapers of Ireland, representing the industry, said the ruling threatened the ability of journalists to do their job.
“The protection of sources – be they anonymous or known – is a central principle of journalism and one which must never be interfered with,” it said in a statement.
“Freedom of the press must be safeguarded as a vital element of a free society.”