Irish investigative reporter Veronica Guerin (1959-1996) believed in revealing the truth about drugs and crime in Ireland, continuing to write her revealing articles even in the face of numerous threats. She was assassinated while sitting in her car on a Dublin street in 1996.
On June 26, 1996, a tough investigative reporter named Veronica Guerin became the twenty-fourth journalist that year to die in the line of duty, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. She was a relative newcomer to the field, having only practiced her craft for some six years. Yet she was already one of its brightest stars, celebrated worldwide for her willingness to track down and publish the kind of information that certain people preferred to keep quiet. And when she died at the hands of a professional killer, presumably to ensure her silence, Guerin was elevated to the status of a national heroine.
Guerin, who acquired the nickname "Ronnie" during her childhood, was one of five children born to a Dublin-based accountant and his wife. She received her education in the Catholic schools of Dublin's north side, where she became an accomplished athlete in camogie (a game similar to lacrosse), soccer, and basketball. Soccer, in fact, remained a lifelong passion of Guerin's; she was a fanatic supporter of England's Manchester United professional soccer team.
Switched Careers from Accounting to Journalism
After studying accounting at Trinity College, Guerin joined her father's firm but left upon his death in 1983 to form her own public-relations company. Seven years later, she took up journalism, first as a business writer for Dublin's Sunday Business Post and then as a news reporter for the city's Sunday Tribune. In 1994, Guerin became an investigative reporter for the Sunday Independent, the largest-circulation weekend newspaper in Ireland.
As a member of the Sunday Independent staff, Guerin specialized in crime stories. She soon made a name for herself in international journalism circles for hard-hitting pieces that sought to expose the truth about Dublin's burgeoning drug trade and the part that increasingly violent and ruthless organized gangs played in it. Guerin was outraged by the mob activity she documented and frustrated by the inability of the police to bring the crime bosses to justice, so she launched a virtual one-woman crusade to bring down the gangs. "She had no basic training [as a reporter]," an editor at the Sunday Business Post later recalled. "She just had a very simple philosophy that she wanted to get the truth."
Guerin's investigative style was a combination of tenacity and boldness. She typically worked out of her car rather than an office, staying on a story for weeks and weeks - long after many other reporters would have given up. Sometimes she even camped out on a person's doorstep for days until he would agree to talk to her. And she didn't rely strictly on police sources for her information. Instead, she went directly to the criminals themselves, persuading many of them to talk to her and detail their activities. Mindful of strict Irish libel laws that make it illegal for reporters to identify suspected wrongdoers by name, she was careful to identify the subjects of her articles only by their street names or by colorful pseudonyms such as "The Monk," "The Coach," and "The Penguin."
Investigative Reporting Proved Dangerous
In October 1994, Guerin experienced the first serious repercussions from one of her stories when two bullets were fired through the window of her home as she played with her young son. The incident occurred only a month after she had written an article on the life of a high-living Dublin drug kingpin known as "The General" who had been found shot to death in his car.
Just a couple of months later, in January 1995, Guerin opened the door to her home and came face-to-face with a man who pointed a handgun at her head, then lowered it and shot her in the thigh instead. The man fled and was never identified. She later speculated that the shooting was in retaliation for an article she had written about the theft of $4.4 million from a supposedly secure depot near the Dublin airport - the largest cash robbery in Irish history. Guerin interviewed a known con man who was reportedly the chief suspect in the heist and described him as the local head of a crime syndicate.
After leaving the hospital, Guerin still on crutches had her husband, Graham Turley, take her to see every crime boss she knew "just to let them know I wasn't intimidated," she later revealed in an interview. Her employer had a security system installed in her house and arranged for her to have a round-the-clock police escort once she returned to work, but she canceled it after only a few days because she felt it hindered her efforts to gather information for her articles.
In September 1995, Guerin paid a visit to a horse farm owned by a prominent ex-convict named John Gilligan, a known leader in the Dublin underworld. She questioned him about how he was able to afford such a luxurious lifestyle with no apparent income. He responded by ripping open her shirt to look for hidden microphones and then beating her. During a subsequent telephone conversation, he threatened to rape her son and kill her if she published anything about him in the newspaper.
Guerin's friends later recalled that although she had always been fearless in her dealings with organized crime figures, she was especially frightened by Gilligan's outburst because he had mentioned the possibility of harming her son. Nevertheless, she pressed on with her work, confident that her familiarity with the mobsters she covered lent her an air of invulnerability; after all, she surmised, they would probably find it very difficult to kill someone they knew. In December 1995, Guerin's bravery and persistence in the face of such attempts to intimidate her into remaining silent earned her the prestigious International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Guerin's Death Affects Nation
On the afternoon of June 26, 1996, Guerin was alone in her car when she stopped at a traffic light in suburban Dublin and made a quick call to a friend on her cellular phone. Two men on a motorcycle pulled up alongside her car. One of them opened fire, shooting Guerin five times in the neck and chest, killing her almost instantly. The men then sped off into traffic and escaped before anyone nearby had even had a chance to react.
The Irish responded to Guerin's assassination with shock, sorrow, and outrage. On the day of her funeral, the small chapel near the Dublin airport where she and her family regularly worshipped was packed with mourners, including Ireland's president, prime minister, and head of the armed forces; others watched the service on television. On July 4, the day labor unions across Ireland had called for a moment of silence in her memory, people on trains and buses, in stores and on the street, sat or stood quietly and bowed their heads in tribute. Admirers lined up in front of the offices of the Sunday Independent to leave flowers and sign a condolence book.
From the very beginning, there was little doubt that Guerin had been the victim of a professional hit, most likely ordered by one of the criminals she had already written about or planned to write about. Police immediately launched a full-scale investigation of the crime but admitted that they expected it would be quite some time before anyone was apprehended if ever. In October 1996, however, Irish police charged a man named Paul Ward with conspiracy to murder in the death of Veronica Guerin. His was the first in what law enforcement officials hoped would be a series of arrests in the case.
Most of the suspicions have centered around Gilligan, who left Ireland for Amsterdam the day before the murder. Several months later, in September 1996, he was scheduled to board another flight from London to Amsterdam when a search of his luggage turned up $500, 000 in cash. He claimed he had won the money gambling, but authorities didn't buy his explanation. He was arrested on charges of trying to launder profits from selling illegal drugs.
Since Guerin's assassination, a number of events have suggested that she did not die in vain. First of all, amid criticism that they did not do enough to protect her, officials of the Sunday Independent announced that they were considering offering journalists working on dangerous stories more and better protection. Secondly, the Irish Parliament convened a special session to discuss anti-crime legislation aimed at cracking down on organized crime and making it easier for police to pursue cases against mob bosses. The tough new measures caused some members of Dublin's underworld to flee the country to avoid arrest.
Perhaps most important of all, Guerin's death prompted a period of soul-searching in Ireland, the likes of which had not been seen for quite some time. Citizen groups sprang up in some of Dublin's poorest neighborhoods, where the drug trade thrived, and people demanded change.
On May 2, 1997, at a ceremony in Arlington, Virginia, the name of Veronica Guerin and those of 38 other international journalists who died in the line of duty in 1996 were added to the Freedom Forum Journalists Memorial. (Ironically enough, Guerin had been scheduled to speak at a Freedom Forum conference on the subject of journalists in peril just two days after she was killed.) Her husband addressed the audience, noting the pride both he and his son felt at seeing Guerin honored in such a way. "Veronica stood for freedom to write," Turley observed. "She stood as light, and wrote of life in Ireland today, and told the truth. Veronica was not a judge, nor was she a juror, but she paid the ultimate price with the sacrifice of her life."
Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1997.
GQ (Gentlemen's Quarterly), March 1997.
Irish Times (online edition), October 19, 1996; June 21, 1997.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 11, 1996.
Nation, June 30, 1997.
New York Times, June 27, 1996, p. A4; July 8, 1996, p. D8; October 19, 1996; November 23, 1996; February 5, 1997.
People, July 22, 1996, pp. 40-43; February 24, 1997, p. 90. Washington Post, July 9, 1996.
World Press Review, December 1996; December 1996, p. 22.
Committee to Protect Journalists, (January 19, 1998).
Freedom Forum and the Newseum, (January 19, 1998).
Guardian newspaper (online edition), June 27, 1996; June 28, 1996; available at (January 20, 1998).
Gag Reflex: Ireland's Libel Laws Muzzle A Free Press
by Michael Foley
After Veronica Guerin's murder, the millions worldwide who read the accounts of her crusading reporting in the face of great danger undoubtedly admired her courage and persistence in getting her stories about the Irish underworld into print, but puzzled over her technique. Why had this young woman repeatedly provoked face-to-face confrontations with mobsters, even after she'd been threatened, beaten, and shot?
What seemed like inexplicable risk-taking to the outside world, however, was part of a deliberate strategy to circumvent Ireland's Byzantine libel laws. Those laws, so stifling to journalistic freedom in Ireland, led Guerin to put herself in harm's way. Lawyers had warned Guerin that published allegations of racketeering and drug-peddling could expose newspapers to libel suits, or provide legal grounds for the dismissal of future criminal charges against the subjects of her articles-unless, of course, these accused mobsters could be persuaded to respond to the charges on the record. These did not tend to be the type of people who returned phone calls. And Guerin was determined to get her stories in the paper.
When Guerin received the 1995 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, she spoke of the need to reform her country's libel laws, expressing the views of most Irish journalists and publishers. She thought it was absurd that reporters were forced to take such risks and that criminal bosses could so easily deflect media scrutiny. She was outraged that one of her fellow crime reporters, Liz Allen of the Irish Independent, should be found guilty under Ireland's Official Secrets Act for publishing a document, available to police nationwide, which contained details of a bank robbery.
In Ireland, press freedom suffers primarily not because of the Official Secrets Act, or other forms of state control, as onerous as they may be. The principal impediment to vibrant and exciting media is the constant and daily threat of libel action. There is no definition of defamation in Irish law. Lawyers rely on judicial dicta that provide a working definition of defamation as a wrongful publication of a false statement about a person, which tends to lower that person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society, or to hold a person up to hatred, ridicule, or contempt, or causes a person to be shunned or avoided.
While the truth of a statement offers the best defense, there is a presumption in favor of the plaintiff, who merely has to show that the words referred to him or her and were published by the defendant. The onus is on the defendant to prove that the statement is true. For media organizations, this means demonstrating that the statement is true according to the legal rather than the journalistic standard: The words that are the subject of the libel action must be substantially true in themselves, irrespective of any context. In practical terms, such a standard creates a conflict for journalists seeking to protect the confidentiality of their sources, who may be unwilling to appear in court and offer proof.
Irish juries tend to give very large awards to plaintiffs in libel suits against the media, without any regard to a newspaper's circulation, a radio station's listenership, or the viewing figures for particular stations or programs. Despite a nine-year-long campaign for reform of the defamation laws by newspaper proprietors and the National Union of Journalists, the situation is getting worse. The number of cases is increasing, and damage awards are getting larger.
There was hope among reporters that in the outcry over Guerin's murder the stalled effort to reform libel laws would finally move forward. But straightforward law-and-order issues took precedence in the public's imagination, and the Irish news media seemed reluctant to plead the case for its own reform agenda.
For the Irish media, the legal minefield extends from news pages to court reports, the editorial page, opinion pieces on the op-ed page, even restaurant reviews and letters to the editor. It is not as if Irish journalists are particularly cavalier. The cost to the media is simply too high for them to act irresponsibly. Awards and legal costs come to well over $50 million a year for the national newspapers alone. For modest print media in a country of 3.5 million people, that is a huge sum; and it does not take into account similar expenditures by provincial publishers and broadcast news organizations or weekly local newspapers. Small errors bring the full weight of the law down on the media. Even understandable mistakes are paid for dearly.
The chilling effect of Ireland's defamation laws reach into all forms of written expression, even into ancillary industries. Publishers have books fully "lawyered." Distribution systems and major news agents and newspaper and magazine shops have refused to stock some publications for fear of libel, because in a defamation case a plaintiff can go after the writer, the editor, the publisher, printer, distributor and seller of the offending material.
All political parties in the Republic of Ireland are now officially committed to freedom of information, despite their past support of official censorship against members of Irish Republican organizations. For 25 years, Ireland's broadcasting law contained a provision, Section 31, allowing governments to ban from the public airwaves anyone or any organization. In 1994, Michael D. Higgins, the minister responsible for broadcasting, did not renew Section 31, although it remained on the statute books. Proposals for new broadcasting legislation currently under government consideration, if adopted, will in all likelihood repeal Section 31.
The commitment to freedom of information means that the Official Secrets Act, which effectively says that all government documents are secret unless specifically stated otherwise, will be amended in the coming year. That means that the presumption of secretiveness will be turned on its head, so that all documents are public unless specifically exempted. The Official Secrets Act will then no longer be a threat to the media.
Such broad public consensus on the importance of the free flow of information might seem to presage the onset of policies fostering openness and support for Irish media to perform their watchdog role with confidence. Instead, Ireland is experiencing a de facto privatization of control of the press: The rich and powerful understand that the country's sweeping defamation laws protect them much more efficiently than anything so crude as state control.