Eamonn Farrell is a former photo-editor of the Sunday Tribune and founder and editor of Photocall Ireland, the largest editorial photographic agency in Ireland.
He has covered all the major social issues in Ireland since 1980, including the H-Block Riots, Peace Process, Divorce, Contraception and Abortion Campaigns.
Recently his agency has extensively followed the Irish Water protests.
As journalists, we are all deeply aware of the challenges facing us and the media in general, as a result of the digital revolution. Like previous unintended consequences resulting from technological developments i.e. the containerization of Dublin Port, and the demise of dock workers, we have to find ways to turn these events to our advantage.
However there is another serious challenge facing us, which has received very little attention and which seriously threatens our independence as a profession.
This is attempts by the Gardai, representing the State, to use journalists and in particular those working in the photographic/video/film arena as an extension of their eyes and ears.
The attempt to force journalists by default, to become agents of the state at protests and demonstrations is not only a threat to our independence and objectivity, but also to our safety and our reputations.
The agency which I represent and work for Photocall ireland has a long tradition of objectively covering events of political, social and environmental importance.
Our professional duty during such coverage, is to represent the public by objectively visually recording what we see, without fear or favour. In doing so we have often suffered the displeasure of both protestors and gardai, but carried on in the knowledge that despite our own individual opinions, we recorded events as they unfolded before us.
As suppliers of media content, we would of course have no or very little say in what imagery was eventually used by the publications or broadcasters we served.
This week our office was visited by two gardai with a summons for two of our staff to appear in a court case which the gardai were taking against a protestor or protesters involved in an event outside the Department of Justice last year, which one of our photojournalists covered.
One summons was for the journalist and the other for the office manager who had downloaded the images onto a CD for the gardai.
So why had we cooperated with the gardai? Well actually we hadn’t. We were handing copies of the images over after refusing to do so unless a warrant was produced. Eventually a warrant was procured and the images were handed over under protest and duress.
This was the third time images were demanded from various events, the third time we refused and the first time a warrant was served and images given over.
I have reason to believe we may be the only media organisation which refused each time we were asked, but maybe I am wrong. Why did we refuse to “help the gardai”. Well because of the following:
1. That is not our professional role.
2. The gardai have the means and the ability to make their own recordings.
3. To become the perceived ‘Eyes and Ears’ of the gardai at protests and demonstrations and marches undermines our ability to carry out our work.
What next? A request for visuals from meetings and briefings behind closed doors!
5. Our journalists already suffer enough intimidation and threats from paramilitaries, gangsters, militants and some members of the public, while trying to carry out their work, without being put in added danger by the knowledge that whatever we record is available on demand by representatives of the state.
6. Because it is bad for democracy if the Fourth Estate ceases to be independent or seen to be independent of the other powerful arms of state. Its independence in other respects is already a topic of debate and that is as it should be. It is now important that this issue of the state through the gardai, demanding that journalists work in a supporting role to it, should also become a matter of debate among journalists, politicians and the public.
The above photograph [click to enlarge] of a confrontation between Hunger Strike marchers and the gardai at the British embassy in 1981 and the photograph (top) of journalists being threatened by baton waving gardai at the same event is a case in point.
My duty as a journalist covering the event was to record whatever I saw. Gardai beating up protesters or protesters beating up gardai, it did not matter.
As a journalist the freedom to remain objective and independent is critical to my work and any attempt to interfere with it, is an attack on democracy.