Thursday 27 October 2016

GSOC's threat to press freedom

Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

A free press is part of a larger right of the freedom of expression and is, therefore, something to be jealously preserved and guarded.

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Last week it emerged that the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) has interviewed two senior garda officers and is seeking to question a third after their telephone numbers were found on the mobile phone records of two journalists. Of the three officers, two were sanctioned to speak to the media at the time. It has also emerged that GSOC and the gardai are carrying out at least seven investigations related to the work of journalists, and how they sourced their information.

GSOC has been dogged by controversy and is particularly linked in the public mind to an embarrassing episode centred on unsubstantiated claims it was being bugged. It has done little to rehabilitate its reputation as a watchdog, just as it has done little to rehabilitate the reputation of the Garda Siochana at a time when the force, its role within the justice system and the system itself has been under intense scrutiny.

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly emphasised that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights safeguards not only the substance and contents of information and ideas, but also the means of its transmission.

The press has been accorded the broadest scope of protection in the court's case law, including with regard to confidentiality of journalistic sources. Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom. Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest. As a result the vital public-watchdog role of the press may be undermined, and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information be adversely affected.

The issues potentially at stake as part of this GSOC investigation are, therefore, serious indeed. Journalists are reminded that free press comes with a huge responsibility and is primarily for the benefit of ordinary citizens. It has been reported that some of the newspaper articles the journalists were working on were damaging to the gardai, Government and other public figures. That is no reason, however, to allow the garda watchdog such free and easy access to the telephone records of journalists, in these instances without notice to or the consent of the journalists concerned.

Indeed, that such powers were introduced in the first place is an indictment of the legislature as a whole, which seems to have devised and allowed this authority pass into law without by or leave. For that matter, the media also failed to properly scrutinise this worrying development when it was brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas a year ago.

Now the National Union of Journalists has expressed concern, describing as "worrying" the actions of GSOC in accessing journalists' telephone records without their knowledge or consent. Social Democrat TD Catherine Murphy has also referred to the "chilling effect" this investigation will have on whistle-blowers coming forward with issues of public concern and the Minister for Health has also let his concerns be known.

Indeed, GSOC itself is one such a legitimate body for close media scrutiny, which it would itself accept. The conduct of this GSOC inquiry, therefore, should give rise to grave public concern.

Sunday Independent

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