Tuesday 27 September 2016

GSOC must not intrude on freedom of the press

Published 15/01/2016 | 02:30

GSOC buildings in Dublin
GSOC buildings in Dublin

The First Amendment to the American Constitution reads, in part, "Congress shall make no law… abridging the Freedom of Speech, or of the press."

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Generations of lawyers have subsequently fought to determine whether the framers of the constitution meant to differentiate press freedom from general speech freedom.

The truth is that they are pretty much inseparable: any restraint on one is an attack on the other. In order to fulfil their essential democratic role in questioning and holding to account those in positions of power, journalists must enjoy this freedom.

That is why the revelation that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) has accessed and studied the phone records of reporters - following complaints about gardaí allegedly leaking information - is so troubling.

We know that the commission was granted Garda-style powers last year to access phone records if required during the investigation of serious offences. But this is the first time their use has become public knowledge. There are myriad reasons why the phone records of journalists must be protected, and that the grounds for making exceptions must be defined precisely. Confidentiality and respect for sources must be paramount in serving the public interest.

It is essential to avoid any perception of moves towards a 'Big Brother' state. The fact that the records of the journalists were scrutinised, even though there was no question of wrongdoing on their part, is nothing short of alarming.

Understandably, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has expressed its concern at what it terms such "fishing expeditions". The right of members of the media to protect their sources is deemed so important that it is protected by the courts. Any exception to this should at least be signed off on by a judge. Guaranteeing the confidentiality of sources was evidenced vividly in successive whistleblower cases.

Any intrusion or restriction is not just a disservice to journalism, but it is an encroachment on the public's right to know and should be relentlessly resisted.

Irish Independent

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