Saturday 10 December 2016

GSOC criticism: 'Do I have to get disposable mobile phone like Nidge?'

Published 15/01/2016 | 02:30

Conor Feehan. Photo: Garrett White
Conor Feehan. Photo: Garrett White

A journalist at the centre of the GSOC phone snooping controversy has revealed his friends were contacted by investigators because their numbers were on his phone.

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Conor Feehan, chief reporter with the 'Herald', which is owned by Independent News and Media (INM), said he felt angry after learning of the invasion to his privacy, adding he would be left with little option but to revert to using throw-away sim cards and phones in a bid to protect the identity of his sources.

He said the job of a journalist is to take information, verify it independently and possibly print it if it is in the public interest.

"The assurance that is given is that the journalist won't reveal the source," he said. "It is a relationship built on a trust that journalists have gone to prison to defend in the past."

Mr Feehan's mobile phone records - and those of Ali Bracken of the 'Irish Daily Mail' - were allegedly accessed by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and An Garda Siochana during an investigation in to a complaint lodged by a friend of the late model Katy French.

Mr Feehan said every number in his phone - from his wife, parents and siblings to politicians and minor celebrities - and his emails may have been under the spotlight.

This also includes his friends, some of whom are gardaí - an organisation which he says he has had massive respect for.

"After all, my grandfather was a garda who joined the force as it was being first established," he said.

"What annoys me most is that friends of mine have been contacted by GSOC for no more reason or suspicion than their phone numbers were on my phone, and they have been asked questions.

"Am I living in a modern, progressive democracy, or am I living in some sort of Communist regime where Big Brother is monitoring my phone and emails and at any moment I might get a tap on the shoulder from some sort of Stasi officer?

"Who will contact a journalist if they think that, despite an assurance from the reporter that they will remain anonymous, GSOC or some paranoid busybody could start trawling the journalist's phone looking for them, wondering what they had for breakfast?

"Maybe now I have to resort to disposable mobile phones, multiple sim cards, pay-as-you-go anonymity - just like Nidge, Fran and Elmo in 'Love/Hate' - just like a common criminal."

Mr Feehan, who also writes for this newspaper, said it was an essential part of a journalist's job to speak to sources who reveal information in the public's interest.

"In any democracy, there is a need for press freedom to inform the public of what is going on in the world," he said.

"Sometimes it is straightforward... Other times it is more complex. People may have information that they know is in the public interest but they want to remain anonymous to protect their personal safety, their job, a relationship or a reputation."

'Sunday World' Investigations Editor Nicola Tallant (far left) believes gardaí may have also accessed her phone records last year. Ms Tallant said the lives of her sources were being "put at risk" by the exercise.

"These people come to us in confidence to highlight some of the most dangerous people in our society and their practices.

"The fact that certain members of An Garda Siochana are accessing my personal records, without question, puts their lives at considerable risk."

Irish Independent

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