Cathaoirleach, I’m calling for a debate on independent journalism in this country, and this government’s attitude towards it. Does the government believe that inconvenient truths are still truths, and that the public have a right to know these truths? Or is it their philosophy that oversight and accountability are outdated concepts, and that those seeking to engage in investigative journalism should watch themselves lest they fly too close to the sun. Today, the United Nations celebrates World Press Freedom — although as RTÉ’s Yvonne Murray notes, “there is nothing to celebrate”. 86 journalists were killed in 2022, making it the deadliest year for the profession, according to UNESCO, while hundreds more were attacked or jailed. And while no such murders took place in Ireland, it would appear that character assassinations are alive and well. The use (or, abuse) of parliamentary privilege to single out “The Ditch”, a minor, independent news outlet and launch an attack on its credibility (an issue for the Press Council of Ireland to decide on, not a member of Cabinet) has rightly been met with condemnation. The National Union of Journalists has criticised it, stating that “it was unfair that the Tánaiste was free to speak as he wished while Irish journalists are subject to ‘extremely restrictive defamation laws’”, and I have to agree. We’ve seen a few grassroots Irish media outlets spring up over the past couple of years, and you don’t have to do too much reeling in of the years to see the impact that they have had in the stories that have been broken by them and the role that they have played in shifting the Overton Window in Ireland and forcing us to reckon with the serious issues facing this country. The free press is often the first casualty in the demise of democracy, and the murder weapon is usually the ever-tightening bands of legislation that constrain, constrict and eventually kill any ability to exchange any information that challenges the status quo. While usually authoritarian regimes employ a “frog-in-boiling-water” style gradual increase in censorship, our own progressive government has decided to progress things at a brisker pace with the sweeping changes to be introduced by the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022. Having been passed by the Lower House last week, the Bill will soon be before us, and many of us will be aware of the international attention that this legislation has received (with both Twitter’s own Elon Musk and Donald Trump Jnr contributing) — all of which has been entirely critical of the contents of the Bill and the extreme chilling effect that it is guaranteed to have on the free exchange of ideas, which is the bedrock of any functioning and healthy democracy. I would urge every single one of my colleagues to study the Bill carefully, read the contributions made in the Lower House and come to your own conclusions, because this is going to be a watershed moment in Irish legislative history, and you do not want it on your conscience to have sleepwalked through it.
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