Saturday 3 December 2016

Human rights body attacks limitations of snooping review

Shane Phelan, Cormac McQuinn and Kevin Doyle

Published 22/01/2016 | 02:30

Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Collins
Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Collins

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald remains under fire over her excuses for limiting the scope of a review of snooping laws.

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The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) said the minister's reasons for limiting the review to the accessing of the phone and internet records of journalists was "implausible".

The independent human rights watchdog said the review should be widened to take in the use of snooping laws against all members of the public and not just journalists.

The former chief justice John Murray has been given three months to conduct the review, which was sparked by revelations the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) accessed the phone records of two reporters while investigating an alleged garda leak.

Ms Fitzgerald said she did not order Mr Justice Murray to look at the wider application of snooping laws as "it would have delayed resolving the specific issue about journalistic records that has given rise to concern".

Read more: Kevin Doyle: Without leaks this will be a secret society where authorities say nothing and hope we go away

However, ICCL executive director Mark Kelly insisted the argument made by the minister was "implausible". He called for Mr Justice Murray's terms of reference to be expanded.

"The former judge has been asked to review the legislative framework of the 2011 Data Retention Act and that Act makes no distinction whatsoever between accessing and retaining the communications data of journalists and that of other people," said Mr Kelly.

"In other words, the former judge has been asked only to review the adequacy of the law, not to scrutinise the many thousands of times it is used annually to compromise the privacy of journalists and the public at large.

"Consequently, artificially restricting his terms of reference to the law's use to snoop on journalists will not reduce the time needed for his review, but will diminish the value of his findings."

The most up-to-date snooping figures show that An Garda Siochana, GSOC, the Defence Forces and the Revenue Commissioners made 8,622 requests for access to personal phone and internet records in 2014.

GSOC maintained its silence on the issue yesterday and has issued no comment since the snooping revelations emerged last week.

However, GSOC commissioners may be forced to speak on the issue publicly soon at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. Labour senator Susan O'Keeffe, a former journalist, said she "absolutely" believes GSOC should be brought before the committee before the General Election is called.

Read more: Newspapers welcome review

"I would obviously be very concerned about any surveillance of phones of anybody and particularly of journalists - not just because I was one," said Senator O'Keeffe.

"We know that we recognise the value and the power of the fourth estate and the need to ensure that journalists can pursue their work without having to reveal their sources."

Independent TD John Halligan also said a GSOC representative should face questioning from TDs and senators before the Dail is dissolved.

"This is such a huge issue with journalists and the media that I don't think that this can go six weeks through an election campaign and maybe another three or four weeks before they form a government without some finality being brought to this as to what's happening, how it's happening, who has agreed to it, and how it is monitored".

The committee's chairman, Sinn Fein TD Padraig MacLochlainn, said it would be "helpful" if GSOC made a statement clarifying their position.

But he said that ultimately it was up to TDs to resolve the issue by amending legislation so that authorities would need the approval of a judge before getting access to phone and internet records.

Irish Independent

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