Friday 13 December 2019

GSOC board under pressure as Taoiseach and Tanaiste deliver withering assessment on phone monitoring

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Public Affairs Editor

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny has criticised the garda watchdog for snooping on the phone records of journalists.

In a stinging rebuke of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman, Mr Kenny said there was a difference between accessing such records in a case involving national security and the situation at the centre of the current controversy.

It emerged last week that GSOC accessed the phone records of two journalists following a complaint by a friend of the late model Katy French about alleged garda leaks.

Laws which allow GSOC to do this without first getting clearance from a judge are now set to be reviewed on the orders of Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald.

Read more: GSOC profiled: Mired in controversy since the start

Mr Kenny said: “Clearly the fundamental principle of journalistic sources being confidential is very important in a democracy.

“Minister Fitzgerald is looking at this on the basis of the protection of the sources of information for journalists in a free world, in a free press.

“There’s a difference here between this particular kind of incident and one of where national security might arise, so the minister will respond appropriately and quickly in this regard.

“Fundamentally, I think that where issues like this are concerned that it would be appropriate that the legislation be reformed to reflect that.

“Because whatever else people might argue about, there has always been a consistency about the protection of sources for information for members of the press in a democracy like ours.”

The Taoiseach's strong words were echoed by the Tanaiste Joan Burton, who also spoke at the launch of the Action Plan for Jobs 2016 in Oberstown in Kildare earlier today.

“I anticipate that tomorrow, Government will get a report from the Minister for Justice," the Tanaiste said.

“The issue is an important issue. I understand it goes back to events in 2007 and we’ll get a report on it.

“But I think it goes without saying that the protection of journalism sources is of critical and primary importance, and the Government will address that.”

The commentary from the two Government leaders is set to put the spotlight back on the board of GSOC.

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

Last week it was 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) has expressed serious concern over fresh claims that journalists were being monitored by the secretive watchdog which was recently handed major powers.

In recent weeks, a number journalists, one of whom works for Independent News & Media (INM), have discovered their phone records have been accessed as part of a GSOC probe.

The Government is currently facing a High Court challenge to laws which allow such snooping, as well as data retention laws.

The case is being taken by campaign group Digital Rights Ireland.

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