UN Commission on Human Rights

Report on mission to Ireland by Special Rapporteur on

Freedom of Opinion and Expression

(Report dated 10 January 2000)
(Considered by Commission 13 April 2000)

  • Abortion - another step forward
  • Freedom of opinion and expression "everywhere apparent" in Ireland
  • RTÉ appears "fair and impartial"
  • Media "looked after" on libel
  • A Report with a purpose?

      1. The report on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, was drawn up by the UN Special Rapporteur, Mr Abid Hussain, for submission to the fifty-sixth session of the Commission on Human Rights, which took place on 13 April 2000.  The High Commissioner for Human Rights is (Mrs) Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland.
    2. The report follows on from a visit to Ireland by the Special Rapporteur (SR), 18 - 22 October 1999, and from information received by him from individuals and non-government organisations.  He met with representatives of Government, with TD's - government and opposition, with members of the judiciary, with media professionals, and with others "active in the field of human rights".
    3. Recommendations by the SR include:
    1. Lifting of restrictions on abortion advocacy and advertising.

    2. Ratification/incorporation of certain conventions/treaties.

    3. Adequate finance for the Irish Human Rights Commission.

    4. Revealing of sources by journalists should not be compellable.

    5. Amendment of Defamation laws.

    6. An Ombudsman/Press Council for newspapers.

    7. Amendment of s.31 of the Broadcasting Act, 1960.

    8. Repeal of laws relating to censorship by the State.

    9. Inclusion of Gárda Siochána under the Freedom of Information Act.

    10. Support of non-intervention by the State in the internet.

    11. Elimination of systemic and indirect discrimination against women and members of the Travelling community.

    4. The conventions and treaties referred to above are:
    1. Convention against All Forms of Racial Discrimination,

    2. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

    3. International human rights treaties already ratified.  Amongst these are:

    1. The European Convention on Human Rights, (ECHR).

    2. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, (CEDAW).

    5.  The proposals for the amendment of the Defamation laws include:
    1. Shifting burden of proof from the defendant to the plaintiff.

    2. The sanctions for defamation "should not be so large as to exert a "chilling" effect on the freedom of opinion", etc.


    6. Various other issues are also discussed in the Special Rapparteur's report, eg,  issues relating to asylum-seekers, women in the political arena, "unregulated" pregnancy counselling, information on women's health-care issues and on "childcare" benefits and options, and freedom of information generally.


    7. The Special Rapporteur says he "can assert that freedom of opinion and expression is widely apparent in Ireland", and that the State-owned television, RTÉ, "appears fair and impartial".

    8.  The Government was expected to respond to the SR's report at the session.  (No report available at 20 May)

    9. Current media reports discuss Mr Hussain's comments on "the 'chilling' effect of defamation restriction on freedom of expression and the exchange of information", and the "right" of journalists to protect sources of confidential information.  (See Michael Foley, Irish Times, 28 March, 2000 and John Waters, Irish Times,  10 April, 2000) .
    However, no report outlining any of the other issues raised in the SR's report, has been found in the print media, except for the Sunday Tribune.  Advertising for abortion was mentioned on RTE on 14 May.

    Comment on Overview:
    1. What is one to say of an international organisation, supposedly committed to safeguarding vital human rights, which seeks to make even more vulnerable the very life of those already most vulnerable?  All else in this report pales into insignificance.

    2. As to the sources of the SR's information, there is no indication in the report that:

    1. Mr Hussain's visit was advertised, or that Mr Hussain was available to the public, if such was the case.

    2. He sought to meet with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

    3. He sought to meet with the Family and Media Association (FMA).
    (The FMA is an independent users' group concerned with promoting an understanding of the media and communication between the media and users.   It monitors and evaluates programmes, and publishes a quarterly newsletter, "Media Report", copies of which are sent to the Minister for Arts and Heritage, and to RTE.  It has some 800 members.  It is the only group of its kind in Ireland.)

    4. He sought to meet with the Irish Civil Rights Association.

    5. He sought to meet with organisations active in the field of the human right to life of the unborn, such as Youth Defence, the Pro-Life Campaign, etc.  (These are organisations which  experience particular difficulty in relation to freedom of opinion and expression, including access to the media).

    6. He sought to meet with the representatives of the independent radio, television, or local press sector, or with the national "Irish Examiner".

    7. He sought to ascertain the existence or effectiveness of the media management's and the NUJ's systems in support of their commitment to freedom of expression.

    The visit, apart from any other objectives it may have had, seemed therefore to be confined to ascertaining establishment opinion: marginalised opinion is excluded.
    3. Rolling back the libel laws has long been an NUJ/management objective.  It has been set as a specific target for the year 2000.  The standing proposal is that the industry would be prepared to entertain a Press Council in some form in exchange for a relaxation of the libel laws.
    The arguments for and against such an amendment of the libel laws are not seriously set out.

    From a media perspective, there seem few disadvantages in removing restrictions on defamation.  From the citizen's perspective, individually and collectively, there is a balance that must be struck between the public's right to know in the public interest, and the individual's right to his/her good name.  There have been two very prominent cases in the last year, where, many believe, the right of the individual was subordinated to profit.

    4. Censorship is only considered in the context of state censorship, not media censorship, otherwise known as "selective presentation."
    Amendment of s.31 of the Broadcasting Act, 1960, is supported, without any balanced argument.  The repeal of s.31 has also long been an NUJ objective.

    5. Many of the "politically correct" issues discussed have only the most tenuous connection with the stated purpose of the report.
    On the other hand, issues not addressed include:
    1. Lack of plurality of ownership in the print media, (mentioned, but not addressed)

    2. Lack of diversity on social issues across all media.

    3. Dominant position across all media outlets of one Union, the NUJ.

    4. Official position of NUJ in support of abortion.

    5. "Closed shop" policy of NUJ.

    6. Censorship by the media.

    7. Ineffectiveness of s.18 of the Broadcasting Act.

    8. Lack of accountability across all media.

    9. Exploitation of child viewers/listeners.

    10. Access by the citizen to the media.

    11.  Integrity of news and current affairs information.

    12. Use of the Public Order Act, 1994, to prevent/ break-up peaceful demonstrations, plus the likely future use of the Bail referendum, which permits detention without trial for passive resistance.

    13. Use of contempt of court laws for prolonged jailing of peaceful environment protesters (eco-warriors).

    14.  Abuse of the anti-litter laws to restrict freedom of expression.

    15.  Creation of wide-ranging "bubble-zones" around abortion information centres, thus giving these centres the power to seek the jailing of protesters.

    16. Gárda action in arresting citizens peacefully distributing leaflets containing information on abortion, and strip-searching the female participants.  Arrest of  anti-racist protesters at Taoiseach's office, and strip-search of female members.

    17. Gárda action in forcibly breaking up a peaceful pro-life demonstration, that was on the point of ending, or on the penal sentences that subsequently followed, (Currently being appealed).

    6. It seems to this writer, that this report, where it has to do with "the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression", is for the most part, about the freedom of the press, rather than the freedom of the citizen.

    7. Where Mr Hussain discusses abortion, the underlying assumption seems to be that the killing of the unborn is something that somebody has a "right" to, or is acceptable to the Irish people.  Apart from the fact that neither is  patently the case, the Special Rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression has no comment on the denial of the wish of 70% of the population to express their wishes on the matter.

    8. Both the ECHR and CEDAW conventions, which Mr Hussain recommends for incorporation, contain provisions which permit of interpretations that do not respect human life absolutely.  These articles may then become conduits for pressure on member states to legalise abortion.  For instance, (according to a provisional minute), the UN CEDAW Committee "urges the [Irish] Government to facilitate a national dialogue on women's reproductive rights, including on the restrictive abortion laws".

    9. It is an interesting coincidence that:
    1. Mr Hussain's first recommendation concerns the implementation of conventions which have little connection with the stated purpose of his report, but which have the potential for creating pressures for the legalisation of abortion.

    2. The Dail has now decided to incorporate one of these conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into Irish law (May 2000).

    2. The UN CEDAW Committee has urged the Government of Ireland to facilitate a dialogue on the "restrictive" abortion laws. (June 1999)

    3. A major special session of the UN General Assembly, "Beijing +5", is to consider progress and obstacles in meeting the Beijing Conference's objectives.  (June 2000).  Abortion is not far below the surface in these objectives.

    4. The European Parliament has called, with the support of 6 Irish MEP's, for the legalisation of UK-formula abortion in all member states.  (9 March 1999)(Report A4-0029/99).  This call is targeted at Ireland, as abortion is legal in all other EU states.

    5. (Mrs) Mary Robinson, in her authorised biography published in November, 1998, stated that she "would make abortion available in this country in limited circumstances", and  "Ireland must address honestly the needs of more than 4,000 women who.. seek abortions..".

    If Mrs Robinson's definition of "limited circumstances" is to include "the needs of (the) ... 4,000 women", then the circumstances are very wide indeed, not limited.  It means that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (sic) is seeking abortion on demand for Ireland, and, by implication, she is not prepared to defend the right to life of the unborn elsewhere either.

    10. The UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was made in response to the gross abuses of fundamental human rights which the world had just experienced.  Many of these abuses were with full legal authority.
    11. What is the purpose of this report?
    1. Can it be the return of a "favour" to the Irish media by a grateful beneficiary?

    2. Far worse, is it part of a concerted UN/EU campaign to put pressure on Ireland and other countries to legalise the killing of the unborn?


    End of overview and comments thereon.

    Comments (in italics) on selected passages:

    32.  "The Special Rapporteur [SR] was informed that RTE has a statutory duty of fairness and impartiality: when the Government's point of view is broadcast, the opposing point of view is broadcast on the same day".

    This is an oversimplification, and is incorrect in the case of many social issues, where, due to media pressures, a consensus among political parties exists.
    See Divorce referendum, Bail referendum, etc, etc.

    A further example concerns the "debate" on abortion.  The SR has exhibited an uncommon interest in information for abortion.  Yet, in his evaluation of RTE's impartiality, he does not seem to have stumbled on the fact that a leading active pro-life group, Youth Defence, has never once been represented on the panel of the station's primary current affairs programme, Questions and Answers.

    "It was brought to the SR's attention that ... RTE has to divide its party political broadcasts equally between pro and anti sides in referendum campaigns, after it had been accused of acting unfairly and in breach of its statutory duties ..."

    RTE was more than accused of acting unfairly: it was found guilty of unfairness by both the High Court and the Supreme Court.  See Coughlan case.

    The Special Rapporteur (SR) has no comment to make on the remarkable fact that no expense was spared by the combined forces of  the BCC, (the supposed citizen's watchdog), RTE, and the State, in an attempt to defeat, in the Supreme Court, a citizen seeking to establish equality in air-time in the common interest.

    38. et seq.  "... it was reported to the SR that the Government will be undertaking a review of Irish censorship laws [in regard to films, books, etc] because they are obsolete.  Various sources confirmed to the Special Rapporteur that the |Irish censorship regime is characterized by a lack of transparency and accountability."

    No doubt updating is necessary, as with all laws.  However, the SR, in his further comments, seems to show little recognition that society has a duty to use its best endeavours, within reasonable limits, to protect the young, and to promote responsible behaviour.

    But, then, what of censorship not governed by law?

    For instance, how many people knew of Mr Hussain's visit, apart from the NUJ who read about it in January in their own journal, the Irish Journalist?  How many now know of the contents of the SR's report, or of its stunning demands that would put the innocent unborn at risk?

    Or how many know of the outcome of the Beijing+5 conference on 12 May at Dublin Castle, where the views of the majority were sought and then binned, amidst much clamour.

    41. "The Special Rapporteur was informed by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and other sources that libel actions are seriously inhibiting journalism in Ireland..."

    Not so seriously that those unlikely to or in a poor position to fight back, cannot be denigrated.

    The description "chilling effect" was supplied by the NUJ.

    See John Waters' excellent article in the Irish Times, 10 April.

    43. "The SR was also told that there is inadequate judicial control over the amount of damages."  "According to the NUJ, media organizations pay an estimated £Ir 8 million to 10 million per year in defamation costs. Most of the cases, however, are settled financially before going to court.  Now newspapers, in order to avoid defamation cases, train journalists to avoid libel..."

    No comment.

    44. "..the Special Rapporteur welcomes the fact that the Supreme Court has recently declared blasphemous libel unconstitutional."

    This would not appear to be a correct interpretation of the Supreme Court's judgement.

    No reason for the SR's welcome for the decision is given.

    48.  "Since 1994, however, there has been no order in force under Section 31 [of the Broadcasting Act], but the Section remains valid."

    So why is it such a burning issue?

    53. "The media, in particular, seems to make good use of the legislation." [The Freedom of Information Act].

    With a charge of £16.50 per hour for public information, this Act is not for the man/woman in the street.

    55.  The SR commendably draws attention to the fact that the Garda Siochana is currently excluded from the Freedom of Information Act, and he later recommends that this be remedied.  He also draws attention to the lack of retrospective effect of the Act.

    Less commendably, the SR does not draw attention to the fact that the public service broadcaster, RTE, came within the Act only on 1 May 2000.   Exemptions granted ensure that little useful public information is going to be released.  See separate report, RTE and the Freedom of Information Act, on this website.

    58.  According to the Abortion Information
    Act, 1995, "..information about pregnancy termination services cannot be distributed without solicitation..." in books, newspapers, etc, or cannot appear in a public notice.

    59.  "The Act does not restrict information of a more general nature about abortion."

    As the SR was aware of this, it seems a pity he did not ask Minister for Justice, Deputy John O'Donoghue, when he met him, as to why Youth Defence received the treatment they did, including "strip-searching" of the female members, from the Garda Siochana, on the occasion of several information sessions.

    He might have enquired as well, as to why Youth Defence were prevented by the Irish Radio and Television Commission from arranging paid broadcasts conveying information "of a more general nature" on abortion.

    59. "...However, all advocacy of abortion and advertisements for abortion are illegal pursuant to the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929, which makes it illegal to print, publish or sell...any book or publication which could reasonably be supposed to advocate the procurement of abortion or miscarriage by any method.

    "The [SR] believes that as the right to freedom of opinion and expression includes the right to access information which may offend some members of the public (in this case those who oppose abortion) [sic] there should not be any restriction on when and what kind of information regarding abortion is available to be accessed."

    The SR later (at para 76), states that it is his belief that "it is particularly important that all women have the right to access all information, including information regarding abortion in an easier manner.."

    Abortion is the taking of a human life.
    It would be nice to think that the SR is concerned about the difficulty in accessing information on the consequences of  abortion for the child, for the mother, and for society.  The inescapable conclusion, however, is that the SR is referring to information, including advertisements, that is most likely to lead to the obtaining of an abortion.

    Is it not abominable that a representative of a state-supported international organisation charged with responsibility for defending human rights, should be advocating greater ease in obtaining information likely to result in the extinction of the right to life of the most vulnerable?

    The SR makes no reference to the right to life of the unborn, nor to the so-called "limited circumstances" of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson (see Overview above).

    We are then, here looking at another step being unveiled in the steady progress towards abortion on demand in Ireland and worldwide.

    61. "... the SR was informed that pregnancy information services..are currently unregulated in Ireland." "Concerns were raised ... that women are at risk of receiving inaccurate and/or misleading information ...and are open to being counselled by personnel without adequate training."

    Reduction in the number of abortions was stated to be an objective of the Abortion Information Act.

    It would be useful if the SR could quote us the success rate of (a) the pro-life agencies, and (b) the (state-funded) non-pro-life agencies.  He might also like to make a statement on the relative effectiveness of volunteer versus "professional" counsellors.

    75.  On the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, the SR notes that it is indispensable that journalists should have access to information held by public authorities, "so that they can carry out their role as a watchdog in a democratic society."

    One would support the first part of this statement, on the assumption that the access is, in general, for the purpose of genuine public enquiry.

    As regards the role of journalists, it needs to be remembered that, while acknowledging the dedication that many bring to the task, the first de facto role of journalists and the media is to secure jobs and profits.  The watchdog role comes after.

    72.  "..the Special Rapporteur can assert that freedom of opinion and expression is widely apparent in Ireland.  He notes with satisfaction that there is a plurality of viewpoints and voices and that the State-owned television, RTE, appears fair and impartial, reporting all aspects of national life and providing a diversity of viewpoints."

    Congratulations to the United Nations "Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression", for being able to arrive at such conclusions in the face of all the evidence to the contrary!



    It may be noted that the Sunday Tribune published two very full reports on the SR's report on 14 May.  In doing so, it was the first media source to highlight the stance  of the UN Commission on Human Rights in relation to availablity of abortion information in Ireland.

    Note added 21 May:

    See also article "The UN is hostile to our traditional values" by Mary Kenny in Irish Catholic 18 May.