Friday 13 December 2019

Minister to review law allowing GSOC snoop on journalists

'More garda time is now devoted to trawling journalists' phone records than investigating any single case of rape or murder'

Minister Brendan Howlin
Minister Brendan Howlin

Jim Cusack and Philip Ryan

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald bowed to pressure over the scandal of the Garda Ombudsman trawling through journalists' phone records and promised to review the legislation which the permits the practice.

The Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) has been at the centre of fresh controversy after it emerged that Herald journalist Conor Feehan and Irish Daily Mail journalist Ali Bracken's phone records were accessed by it as part of what is understood to be a complaint by a man about news stories concerning the death of model Katy French in December 2007.

The Ombudsman would appear to be investigating the phone records of journalists over this investigation.

Minister Brendan Howlin told RTE Radio 1's News at One today that a body such as GSOC was necessary.

Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Steve Humphreys

However, he described press freedom as a "fundamental pillar of our democracy".

On Thursday Justice Minister Fitzgerald said that it would be "inappropriate" for the department or minister to seek to interfere in any way with the GSOC investigation.

However, last night, Ms Fitzgerald caved in to political pressure and announced she would be reviewing the legislation which allows the Garda Ombudsman access the phone records of journalists.

"This raises complex issues of fundamental importance and I have reached the conclusion there is a need for a review of law and practice in this area," she said.

"This review will have regard to any relevant judicial findings and ensure our law represents best international practice," she added.

Minister Howlin suggested we look at the model adapted in the UK where each application for looking at journalist's phone would be examined by an independent judge.

Sources told the Sunday Independent that more garda time and resources are being devoted to 'trawling' journalists' phone records than to any single murder or rape case.

And now senior sources say the practice is 'mushrooming'.

Sources say that reviews of phone records of journalists suspected of receiving information from gardai is now taking place.

It is now, they say, a matter of making an application to a senior Garda officer under the 2005 Garda Siochana Act about alleged 'unlawful disclosure' for permission to access journalists' phone records.

This is not the case in other EU countries where review of journalists' phone records is seen as a breach of the democratic principles of a free Press. In one instance, it is understood a team of up to 14 gardai in Dublin have made a major trawl through dozens of journalists' phone records in an attempt to establish if there was any form of breach of the 2005 Act.

Section 62 of the Act provides for up to seven years jail and, or, a €75,000 fine - and presumably loss of pension upon conviction - for the unlawful disclosure of information to journalists.

One source said: "I can tell you as a fact there is far more effort being put into trying to identify gardai who have spoken to journalists than there is to any single murder or rape case in this country.

The source explained that under the legislation, extended last year to the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission, gardai only need permission from a senior officer to obtain and trawl through a journalist's phone records. Dozens of journalists wrote stories about the high profile drugs death of 24-year-old Katy French.

Mr Feehan and Ms Bracken both became aware their phone records had been accessed by GSOC after they were alerted that gardai, including two Superintendents, had been summoned to the Ombudsman's offices and asked why they had had contact with journalists.

None of the gardai questioned had any involvement in the investigation into Katy French's death from an overdose of cocaine, and had not passed any information to journalists.

The GSOC investigation was apparently launched as a result of a complaint by an individual who had known Ms French and who felt there had been material published that had come from garda sources. As it happened, there were multiple sources of information about Ms French's death, most of it from her wide circle of acquaintances.

Senior sources say that a situation has now been reached where gardai are fearful of contacting news organisations about any issue, even where it might merit the attention of the public.

All garda communication with the media or public is governed since the foundation of the State by the Official Secrets Act. The reasoning behind the introduction of Section 62 of the 2005 Garda Siochana Act on 'unlawful' disclosure was never fully explained.

Sunday Independent

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