Thursday 12 December 2019

Revealed - GSOC in more controversy as it emerges State body has been snooping on journalists

The garda watchdog in surveillance of how reporters operate and been looking into their phone traffic

GSOC buildings in Dublin
GSOC buildings in Dublin
Garda Siochana Ombudsman

Ralph Riegel and Tom Brady

THE Garda oversight body GSOC was mired in further controversy today as it emerged it was monitoring journalists' phones.

The complaints body was the centre of major political upheaval two years ago when it claimed gardai were bugging its offices.

Now it has been revealed that GSOC itself is prying into how journalists operate and snooping on phone traffic. There are also worries it has been monitoring one journalist’s emails.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) today expressed serious concern over fresh claims that journalists were being monitored by the secretive watchdog which was recently handed major powers.

In recent weeks, two journalists, one of whom works for Independent News & Media (INM), have discovered their phone records have been accessed as part of a Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) investigation.

The two journalists were considering what action to take over the State surveillance on them.

One said his priority was protecting his sources and simply being able to do his job - but has not ruled out lodging a complaint about the matter in the future.

In one of the cases, the journalist's phone records are understood to have been sought as part of a GSOC investigation into a complaint by a man in 2013 about the coverage of model Katy French's death from a drugs overdose. The man claimed gardai gave information on him to members of the media.

The journalist has now also expressed concern that his email records may also have been accessed without his knowledge.

Currently GSOC and the Garda authorities have a total eight investigations into journalists. It's led to complaints of heavyhandedness and lack of prioritisation by both bodies.

GSOC declined to discuss the disclosures last night.

"We have no comment to make on the matter," a GSOC spokesperson said.

NUJ leader Seamus Dooley warned the union was "very concerned" the any such monitoring by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission would jeopardise the ability of Irish journalists to do their job - and undermine Ireland's commitment to protect whistle-blowers who act in the public interest.

"Of course we are very concerned at any threat to the ability of journalists to do their jobs. The Supreme Court has already upheld the right of journalists to protect confidential sources," he said.

Mr Dooley queried how journalists could be trusted by their sources if there was any suggestion whatsoever their phones were being monitored irrespective of which agency was involved in the monitoring.

He said he found it quite worrying that while Ireland was supposed to be promoting and protecting whistle-blowers who act in the public interest, such an integral part of whistle-blowing as secure contacts with the media was now being called into question.

This is not the first time journalists have questioned whether GSOC or gardai are accessing their phone records.

In 2014, Sunday World journalist Nicola Tallant lodged a formal complaint after it was claimed her phone had been routinely monitored by a senior garda since 2010.

The Sunday World, who Ms Tallant writes for, made a complaint to GSOC which investigated the claim from March 2014.

Ms Tallant previously said senior gardaí requested her records from a mobile phone company.

"I was informed (late last year) that my phone records had been sought by senior garda management over a four-year period from 2010," she said.

A year after Ms Tallant lodged her complaint, GSOC advised that the gardai would "neither confirm nor deny" whether they had accessed her records.

The other two journalists have not yet lodged complaints over the handling of their phones.

Tonight, Fianna Fáil Justice Spokesperson Niall Collins called for a review of legislation surrounding GSOC so as to protect journalists sources.

“No-one would wish to undermine long-standing journalists' freedoms and if there are any suggestions as to how we could deal with any unintended side-effect of the legislation in a way that does not compromise the objectives of the bill, namely to strengthen the investigative authority of GSOC, then we should examine that,” Mr Collins said.

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