The murder of Ashling Murphy in January 2022 resulted in public outcry and tributes across the nation. On social media, many women reacted with their own stories of being followed, harassed, and how generally vulnerable they felt in public spaces.
Social media activity continued after arrests were made. Much was circulated about the suspects, including their nationality and where they were living. So much so that Garda released a statement asking the public not to share those messages, saying: “Not only are they misinformed, inaccurate and dangerous, they are unhelpful to the criminal investigation”.
So what exactly can be said and published in relation to an investigation?
Article 34.1 of the Irish Constitution provides that justice shall be administered in public, which is why accused are named. Speaking on the Echo Chamber Podcast, Michael O’Toole, Crime Correspondent with the Irish Daily Star, explained that it is acceptable to publish someone’s details such as name, address, age, occupation. In fact, it ensures that the correct person is identified and not confused with someone with the same name.
There are some exceptions. Accused cannot be named when they are a juvenile. This is why in the Anna Kriegel case, Boy A and Boy B were named in the trial, but could not be named by reporters. Also, anyone charged with rape or serious sexual assault cannot be named. In this case, you can only name someone after conviction if it won’t serve to identify the victim.
So although publishing factual information can continue, commenting is not permitted once a case is sub judice. “You can comment all you like when someone is accused or even charged”, said Michael O’Toole. But once the case is sub judice, or under judicial consideration, then commentary must stop. “Contempt of court kicks in when the judge has control of the case”. From that point on, you can only report what is being said in court, without offering comments.
Contempt of court
There are even some things said in court that cannot be reported at all. For example, if someone in the courtroom shouts and insults the accused, that is considered contempt of court, so cannot be printed. You can write “The accused was abused in court”, but not what was actually shouted at them. This is because it would be prejudicial to the accused, Michael O’Toole explained.
The Press Council Code of Practice is responsible for the regulation of the media, and publications can be sued for what they publish. Therefore, journalists must be aware of what they are permitted to write or say.
There are no such professional standards for the general public. However, they are still liable for defamation, and the development of social media features like sharing and reposting might result in an increase in lawsuits.
Michael O’Toole was speaking on the Echo Chamber Podcast, episode 719. You can listen to it here