At the outset, I thank Deputies for this important and timely debate. While the television cameras and eyes of the world most recently focused on the killings of journalists in Ukraine and the occupied Palestinian territory, we cannot afford to overlook attacks on journalists anywhere. Across the world, attacks against journalists occur against the background of growing authoritarianism, with associated restrictions on press freedom, increased cyber-surveillance and growth in disinformation.
In too many countries, attacks on journalists occur in tandem with a broader pushback against human rights in general and against civil and political rights in particular.
The promotion and protection of all human rights remains a key foreign policy priority for Ireland. It is central to our commitment to a rules-based multilateral order, with the United Nations at its core. We unequivocally condemn impunity and demand protection for journalists, whether in situations of conflict or otherwise. I will speak later about our work on the UN Security Council, which actively reflects that commitment, both through our focus on ensuring accountability and our efforts to mainstream human rights across all areas of the Security Council agenda. It is also evident in our work as an active observer at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, which is the primary international forum responsible for advancing respect for human rights. Our previous membership in the council, from 2013 to 2015, enabled us to contribute substantively to the promotion and protection of all human rights. In order to continue this work, Ireland will seek our next term on the Human Rights Council for the period 2027 to 2029.
As Deputies will be aware, Ireland also last week assumed the six-month Presidency of the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe, the Continent’s leading human rights organisation, for the seventh time. Much has changed since Ireland joined the Council of Europe as one of ten founding members in 1949. However, the council’s work on the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law is more vital than ever. This includes the independence of the media and safety of journalists across the 46 member states, including Ukraine.
The most recent figures from Reporters without Borders provide a grim background for today’s debate. Some 939 journalists and media workers were killed across the globe during the ten years from 2011 to 2020. Last year alone, 50 journalists were killed and 302 were imprisoned. Every killing of a journalist represents an assault on democracy, is an attack on media freedom and demonstrates contempt for the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
While the protection of journalists is a global issue, it also resonates deeply with people across this island. I am proud that Ireland ranks sixth of the 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index. However, our history reminds us that we cannot take press freedom for granted ever. We remember in particular the despicable killings in Northern Ireland of widely respected journalists Lyra McKee and Martin O’Hagan at the hands of paramilitary organisations. Likewise, the memory of the brutal murder of Veronica Guerin reminds us of the threat from organised crime networks. We also remember the two Irish camera operators killed while working overseas, Simon Cumbers, and more recently, Pierre Zakrzewski, who was killed with his Ukrainian colleague on 14 March when their vehicle came under fire in Ukraine. I am also well aware that an increasing number of journalists, including Irish citizens, have faced expulsion or have been denied work permits to undertake media assignments abroad.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression is defined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, as exercised by journalists and media, is fundamental to the protection and promotion of democracy, the rule of law and upholding all human rights. Having free, independent and pluralistic media, both online and offline, is crucial to any democratic society. It allows citizens and communities to make informed decisions and to hold governments accountable. Being able to work in safety allows journalists to fulfil their essential role in providing objective and unbiased information.
Journalists play an indispensable role in conflict-affected countries. They ensure that we know what is happening in some of the world’s most dangerous and inaccessible places. They report and document the realities and impacts of conflict and corruption. They uncover evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and human rights violations and abuses. They are often the first witnesses to report a conflict and its impact on the everyday lives of civilians. Their work can underpin steps towards accountability, justice and ultimately, peace.
International humanitarian law is clear. Journalists working in conflict zones must be afforded the same protections as civilians. Too often, though, they face violence and intimidation. Tragically, in some cases it is the "Press" logo emblazoned on their vests or armbands and intended to guarantee protection which leads instead to their being deliberately targeted. In too many cases, threats of killing and attacks against journalists go uninvestigated, allowing the perpetrators to act with impunity. This has a further chilling effect on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.
Women journalists are particularly at risk of marginalisation and are targeted disproportionately by harassment and violence. Offline, and increasingly online, we are now seeing an increase in the targeting of women journalists, including in situations where gender intersects with other forms of discrimination, including race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
During our term on the UN Security Council, Ireland is prioritising human rights and international humanitarian law. We have frequently called attention to attacks on media workers and have demanded accountability. We have condemned abductions and disappearances of journalists in Libya, called for an end to violence against media workers in Myanmar and spoken out against attacks on freedom of expression in Afghanistan. Last week at UN headquarters in New York, we called for a thorough, impartial and independent investigation into the case of Shireen Abu Akleh, who I expect will be the focus of many people's contributions today.
In 2015, the Security Council adopted a dedicated resolution on the protection of journalists and we are determined to keep this issue on the agenda. Today, Ireland is hosting a meeting of Security Council members in New York that will focus specifically on the protection of journalists. We have called this meeting in response to recent cases where media workers have been killed. We have invited a number of experts to brief at the meeting, including Jon Williams of RTÉ, a member of the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Irene Khan, the UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion, as well as representatives from Agence France-Presse and Al Jazeera. We will examine what more the Security Council and UN missions can do to protect journalists. We will highlight the vital need to address impunity and call on the UN Security Council to do everything possible to ensure accountability for crimes against media workers.
Let me focus for a moment on the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh on 11 May. I have already strongly condemned her killing, which took place while she was engaged in her work as a journalist. Today, I would like to restate my condolences to her family, friends and colleagues. Ms Abu Akleh was a successful and very well-respected journalist. Her reporting has been rightly praised for its tenacity and humanity.
We have all seen the shocking footage of Ms Abu Akleh’s funeral in Jerusalem on 13 May. I condemn the disgraceful actions of the Israeli police, including the totally unacceptable use of excessive force. These appalling events compound the trauma of those grieving, increase already heightened tension, particularly in Jerusalem, and show a complete disrespect for the dead. These actions were offensive to every sense of decency and have no place in any modern society. I welcome the widespread condemnation of Ms Abu Akleh’s killing from the international community, including the EU and UN. The EU issued a statement calling for a thorough and independent investigation and stressed the importance of supporting journalists, particularly those covering conflicts. High Representative Josep Borrell also highlighted the disproportionate use of force by the Israeli police at the funeral.
I echo the words of the UN special coordinator, Tor Wennesland, who said that an investigation must be immediate and thorough. The UN Secretary General also issued a statement urging an independent and transparent investigation and accountability for those responsible for Ms Abu Akleh's death. The Israeli Government must take definitive steps now to ensure swift accountability. It should not and cannot ignore these calls. A full independent, effective and transparent investigation into Ms Abu Akleh’s death is not only required, but demanded by the international community. The Israeli Government must now outline how it intends to achieve this in a credible way. Any delays make it more difficult to gather evidence and to hold those responsible to account.
The killing and the events afterwards at the funeral also sit within a broader context of heightened tensions throughout Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly in Jerusalem. I have been clear that the Israeli authorities must take concrete actions to de-escalate the situation. There is a real risk of further destabilisation, violence and the deaths of more innocent people. The events at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan have focused attention again on the holy sites.
There are potentially significant flash points in the coming weeks, including the flag parade due to take place on 29 May. The Israeli authorities must act to avoid escalation.
On 13 May, my Department and 13 other EU foreign ministries issued a statement expressing deep concern regarding the large number of new settlements approved for construction by the Israeli Higher Planning Council, and urging the Israeli authorities to reverse the decision. We also stated our opposition to the planned demolitions and evictions at Masafer Yatta. These decisions cannot be seen in isolation from the wider rise in tensions across Israel and Palestine.
The impressive work of journalists, such as Shireen Abu Akleh, contributes to a greater understanding of the conflict. They work to ensure that this important issue continues to receive the international attention it deserves, that this long-running conflict is not forgotten and that the international community is reminded of its responsibility to strive for a lasting peace.
Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy. The work of journalists, such as Shireen, is critical to ensuring accountability. Without their witness, the suffering of people under occupation would be less visible. I call on the Israeli authorities to show that they take the fundamental democratic principle of accountability seriously; and that they are committed to ensuring there is no impunity for those guilty of wrongdoing.
I would also like to take the opportunity to address the decision by the Israeli authorities over the weekend to refuse entry to the Chair of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with Palestine as well as the decision to deny entry to Gaza to the members of this delegation, which included two Irish MEPs.
I echo the concerns raised on this issue, including the comments of the European Parliament's President, Ms Roberta Metsola. As Ms Metsola has said, respect for MEPs and the European Parliament is essential for relations between the EU and Israel, now and in the future. I understand that Ms Metsola is currently in Israel on a separate visit and will raise this issue directly with the Israeli authorities. So she should.
On Ukraine, Ireland has unequivocally condemned Russia's brutal and ruthless aggression in Ukraine. The loss of life as a direct result of Russia's actions is deplorable. Again, I strongly condemn the killing of all those journalists who have been working bravely to shine a light on the plight of Ukraine since the outbreak of hostilities.
UN-appointed independent human rights experts, including the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, have warned that journalists in Ukraine have been deliberately targeted and continue to face unprecedented dangers while carrying out their work. At one point, we have seen some of that live on television. They have cited numerous reports indicating that journalists have been "targeted, tortured, kidnapped, attacked and killed, or refused safe passage" from cities and regions under siege.
I have witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of Russia's indiscriminate behaviour and disregard for civilian lives, including journalists, in Ukraine. At least nine media workers have lost their lives in Ukraine since 24 February and more have been seriously wounded. This includes, as I mentioned earlier, an Irish citizen and journalist and his fellow Ukrainian journalist. They were killed on 14 March by Russian forces. I would like, again, to offer my deepest condolences to their families.
Ireland stands firmly with Ukraine and we stand firmly with all those journalists working to report on the barbarity being inflicted on Ukrainian people at this time. In April, Ireland contributed €20,000 to the International Federation of Journalists to provide emergency support to journalists in Ukraine. This funding provides front-line assistance and equipment, including helmets and flak jackets, secure communication tools, medical supplies and safety training and enables journalists to carry out their indispensable work on the front line.
Russia's deliberate campaign of disinformation in relation to the war in Ukraine continues. It is thanks to the tireless work of journalists that the true nature of this conflict continues to be understood. This year, the journalists of Ukraine were collectively awarded the Pulitzer special citation for their courage, endurance and commitment to truthful reporting during Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Across Ukraine, we have seen Russian forces using indiscriminate explosive weapons, including prohibited cluster munitions, in populated areas and against civilian infrastructure. The toll of destruction of homes, hospitals and schools is testament to that. It speaks to an utter disregard by Russian forces for international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians.
The value of free and impartial journalism in Ukraine is to shed a light on the truth and facts of Russia's war of aggression and to hold those responsible to account.
We will continue to work closely with our partners to combat harmful Russian disinformation narratives. Together with the European Union and its member states, Ireland has introduced a series of sanctions which target state-owned media services responsible for Russian state propaganda. We will continue to work together to combat Russian disinformation and increase our resilience against such hybrid threats.
Russia has repeatedly sought to mask the human cost of its unprovoked war on Ukraine with baseless and unfounded claims against Ukraine and the United States. At the Security Council, we have called out Russian attempts to distort reality, particularly in relation to the illegal attack on the hospital in Mariupol and their false claims of Ukrainian chemical and biological weapons programmes.
Since Russia's full-scale onslaught in Ukraine on 24 February, Russian police have systematically and often violently repressed opposition to the war within Russia. More than 15,000 peaceful protesters have so far been arrested.
The Russian Parliament has introduced a series of legal provisions whereby anyone questioning the so-called "special military operation", may be subject to prosecution and jail, in some cases up to 15 years imprisonment. Dissent and opposition are the hallmark of our sustainable democratic model, and its criminalisation is of deep concern.
As a result, much of Russia's independent media have suspended activities, resulting in a state monopoly on information. At least 150 journalists have fled Russia since 24 February. Worryingly, independent journalists who remain have been labelled by the Russian authorities as "foreign agents" and may be held liable, prosecuted and imprisoned should they be critical of Russia's actions in Ukraine.
Ireland calls on the Russian Government to meet and respect fully its international human rights obligations, including by ensuring the safety and welfare of independent media, journalists and civil society actors and promoting access to a free, diverse and pluralistic media.
We will continue to use our membership of the UN Security Council to hold Russia accountable and to urge it to end its war of aggression in Ukraine as soon as possible. Ireland stands ready to support any initiative which can deliver peace and we will continue to demand accountability for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
There are many other countries where journalists and press freedom are under attack. I know that Deputies have a close interest in this issue, not only in Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also in relation to many other countries across virtually every region of the world.
Before I conclude, I want to acknowledge and thank the many Oireachtas Members who, through overseas visits and international meetings, are actively engaged in raising issues of press freedom with their interlocutors when they travel. Our place on the Security Council, our Presidency of the Council of Europe and our membership of the European Union have been central to our efforts to protect media freedom. If, in due course, we are elected to the Human Rights Council for the 2027 – 2029 period, we will build further on our work in support of media freedom, protecting journalists covering conflicts and calling for accountability for crimes against journalists. I look forward to the outcome of our discussions here today so that we can redouble our efforts on behalf of journalists and press freedom around the world.