Foreign funding restrictions a "threat" to civil society in Ireland

Association

Rights groups in Ireland are highly concerned over the "threat to civil society" from recent changes in the application of rules governing campaigning around elections. Over the past year, authorities in Ireland have become more strict in their application of a 2001 amendment to the Electoral Act of 1997. These changes are being made by the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC), which is responsible for enforcing rules restricting foreign donations to third parties seeking to influence policymaking. According to SIPOC:

"...any individual or organisation that accepts a donation over €100.00 given for political purposes is required to register as a Third Party, and is then subject to the Act's donation limits and disclosure thresholds". 

The 2001 amendment broadly defines "third party" as any actor receiving money for political purposes different from political parties. The goal of the provision was to fight corruption and inappropriate interference in political processes. However, SIPOC has recently begun to apply these measures to a number of civil society organisations, including several that have been campaigning on the issue of abortion outside of official campaign periods. 

As a result, threats of sanctions for having received foreign funding are becoming more and more common. In recent weeks, two CSOs, Amnesty International Ireland and Education Equality, have been asked to return foreign donations, putting the latter organisation at risk of closure. Amnesty has been asked to return a grant of 137,0000 EUR from Open Society Foundations for abortion-related campaigning.

Failure to comply with these orders raises the prospect of criminal sanctions. Amnesty Ireland reacted strongly to the move by SIPOC, stating publicly that it intends not to comply with the order and instead use all means available to challenge it. Amnesty Ireland's Executive Driector Colm O'Gorman declared that:

“Ireland is targeting organisations purely for their work on human rights and equality issues. We believe this law contravenes Ireland’s obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of association and expression”. 

Several other Irish CSOs - including those on all sides of the abortion debate - have criticised the Electoral Act's provisions, and in particular its vague definition of "third parties", as damaging to legitimate civil society and human rights campaigns. They claim that the law has been applied to groups that are not campaigning in support of or against political parties but rather to address policy issues such as abortion and equal access to education. The unclear legislation, therefore, has obstructed the right to freedom of association. Civil society groups are calling on the government to change this regulation.

Liam Herrick, Executive Director of the Irish Council on Civil Liberties, also criticised the way the act is being applied:

“While we believe it was not and is not the intention of any Irish Government to restrict civil society in this way, in effect our law is now being implemented in a manner similar to in Hungary and Russia. Civil society organisations have a right under international human rights standards to seek funding. Blanket bans on foreign funding or caps on donations, such as this, violate international human rights treaties to which Ireland is a party. It is abundantly clear that this law is fundamentally incompatible with the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association as enshrined in international human rights law and ICCL calls for immediate action to amend this”.

Deirdre Garvey, Executive Director of Irish civil society umbrella body The Wheel, has called on the government to clarify the provisions of the Electoral Act, and ensure that the third party provisions only apply to "influencing elections and referendums, and not more general government or public policy work".

Expression

Concentration of media ownership continues to be a growing concern in Ireland. Concerns have recently grown over the acquisition by The Irish Times of its rival the Irish Examiner and several local news, radio and online outlets owned by Landmark Media. The deal has deepened concerns over the small number of owners controlling the majority of private media outlets in Ireland.

This high concentration of media ownership in a few hands means that commercial interests can influence editorial coverage. Business tycoon Denis O’Brien owns Communicorp, a multinational corporation that has a significant share of the news sector, and is the most prominent shareholder of Independent News and Media (INM), Ireland’s largest media outlet at the national level. In October, Communicorp banned all Irish Times journalists from appearing on INM TV and radio shows because of an article written by The Irish Times journalist Fintan O'Toole, in which he criticised a Communicorp radio station as "flagrantly sexist". The incident sparked significant debate over the limits of free speech and the ability of privately-owned media to control who can appear and present before the public. Opposition politician Brendan Howlin commented on the incident, saying that:

"Banning journalists because of criticism is why people worry about media concentration”.

In April 2017, the Irish National Union of Journalists called on the government to investigate media ownership in the country and called out INM’s deal to take over the Celtic Media Group, which publishes several regional and local newspapers. As a result of this pressure, INM decided to relinquish the deal.