Let us hear what they say: Dublin's draconian political censorship is at last looking vulnerable, says Michael Farrell

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SOME years ago there was a serious fire at a guesthouse in the Irish holiday resort of Bundoran. A reporter for the national broadcasting company, Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE), filed an interview with an eyewitness to the fatal blaze. But the interview was never broadcast.

Someone at RTE headquarters in Dublin had discovered that the eyewitness was a member of Sinn Fein, the political party that supports the IRA. There was nothing remotely 'political' about the interview or the fire, but under the Irish Republic's draconian censorship law, all interviews/broadcasts by 'spokesmen' for Sinn Fein are banned. The management of RTE interpreted that to mean interviews with any member of Sinn Fein on any topic whatsoever.

Examples of this bizarre use of the ban are legion. A gay rights activist who rang a phone-in interview with the health minister to discuss the prevention of Aids was cut off when it was realised that he was a member of Sinn Fein. And a man who rang up a gardening programme to ask about mushroom-growing was also cut off when it transpired that he, too, was a member.

While these cases may seem laughable, there is nothing funny about Section 31 of the Irish Broadcasting Authority Act 1960 (as amended). This allows the broadcasting minister to prohibit the broadcast of anything which, in his opinion, would be likely 'to promote, or incite to crime or would tend to undermine the authority of the state'. In November 1972, the then minister sacked the entire RTE authority for allowing an interview with an IRA leader to be broadcast.

The result has been a climate of paranoia and self-censorship at RTE. This has led ambitious investigative reporters to shun issues that might bring them into contact with Sinn Fein members, and has seriously impaired RTE's coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict.

In 1976 the Irish government introduced a far-reaching ministerial order banning interviews with 'spokesmen' for the IRA, all organisations that were banned in Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein, a legal political party. The order also covered the paramilitary Northern Ireland loyalist organisation the UDA, then legal but recently banned.

There was a further extension of the ban in 1982, when Sinn Fein decided to contest a general election in the Republic. The party nominated enough candidates to qualify for election broadcasts, but the minister banned their transmission.

Sinn Fein is not a significant political force in the Irish Republic, although it holds a scattering of local council seats. The real effect of the Section 31 ban is felt in coverage of Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein won 12.5 per cent of the total vote in local government elections last May and 36 per cent of the combined nationalist vote. It is the second largest party on Belfast City Council.

It is not only Sinn Fein that is silenced. A constant factor in the Northern Ireland crisis is nationalist allegations against the security forces. These include claims that the security forces have a shoot-to-kill policy, and that they collude with Ulster loyalist gunmen, the harassment of nationalist youth and the maltreatment of suspects. As a result of the climate of self-censorship induced by Section 31, a key element in the conflict - the alienation of large sections of the Catholic/nationalist population - is seriously under-reported.

In 1990 there came a legal challenge to RTE's interpretation of the ministerial order. This concluded with a Supreme Court judgment which said that the blanket ban on interviews with Sinn Fein members, no matter what the topic, was going too far. The judgment should curb the wilder fringes of the ban, but it still leaves the prohibition on interviews with Sinn Fein spokespersons or about Sinn Fein policies intact.

A further legal challenge was mounted in August 1992. That month the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, published a book of short stories, The Street, set mainly in West Belfast. Mr Adams's publisher, Brandon Books, tried to advertise the book on RTE but the commercial was refused. In a typically bizarre twist, RTE Radio's books programme reviewed the book shortly after the refusal.

Brandon Books took a judicial review against RTE and the Independent Radio and Television Commission. I do not want to comment too much, both because I acted as solicitor for Brandon and because we are still awaiting judgment in the IRTC case. But I can outline the basic arguments.

Brandon argued the book was written in Mr Adams's personal capacity and was not a statement of Sinn Fein policy; therefore it should not be covered by the ministerial order. RTE replied that because Mr Adams was the president and chief spokesman for Sinn Fein, anything said by him would inevitably promote Sinn Fein. The publication of a book of short stories by Mr Adams '(could) only have . . . the aim of portraying Mr Adams as an artist, a man of culture . . .' and this would lead readers to identify with him and his opinion. The IRTC took a different line. It argued that 'certain stories in the book could amount to . . . advocating, offering or inviting support for Sinn Fein'.

The case involved a substantial debate on the censorship of fiction that is set against a particular political background. Judgment was given in the RTE case in mid-July. The judge backed RTE, and awarded costs against Brandon, a devastating blow for a small, struggling publishing house.

The Brandon decision was a major setback to the anti-censorship movement. But there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Last January a new coalition government involving the Labour and Fianna Fail parties came to power in Dublin. The new goverment was committed to a programme of reforms and a policy of openness. The new broadcasting minister, Michael D Higgins, had previously publicly opposed Section 31. When he took office, Mr Higgins said he would review it and invited submissions by interested parties. In July the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, reviewing Ireland's record on human rights, asked some searching questions and declared that the Section 31 ban was in breach of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, making the government delegation distinctly uneasy.

And in recent days the developments in the talks between SDLP leader John Hume and Gerry Adams have highlighted for many people the absurdity of a situation in which Mr Adams cannot be interviewed, even about peace proposals by his organisation. As the January 1994 deadline for renewing the Section 31 ban approaches, Mr Higgins has within the past few days given further indications of his approach. He has asked RTE for its proposals on how incitement to violence might be presented if the ban were lifted. And he has appointed as head of the IRTC the editor of a popular music magazine who is a long-time opponent of Section 31.

The battle to end Western Europe's most draconian political censorship law is not over yet, but for the first time in many years, Ireland's anti- censorhip campaigners feel they are no longer backing a lost cause.

Michael Farrell is a lawyer and journalist working in Dublin. He is vice-chairperson of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. A longer version of this article appears in 'Window On Ireland', Index on Censorship 8 & 9, from Index, 32 Queen Victoria Street, London EC4N 4SS, pounds 3.

(Photograph omitted)