Wednesday 17 January 2018

Minister under pressure to change laws before election

Minister Frances Fitzgerald: to order review of data retention Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne
Minister Frances Fitzgerald: to order review of data retention Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Kevin Doyle and Shane Phelan

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is facing growing pressure to act before the General Election to change legislation that allows the garda watchdog to snoop on the phone records of journalists.

The Irish Independent understands that Ms Fitzgerald will bring a memo to Cabinet today seeking approval to appoint an "eminent person" to review the legislation that gives GSOC the right to access phone records.

Sources said the review will focus exclusively on how our data retention law relates to journalists and compare this with international best practice.

"We are not hanging around on this," said a justice source.

Ms Fitzgerald had initially said she would order a 'scoping exercise' to look at the legislation but amid a major backlash is now set to take a much stronger approach.

Following the public statements by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Joan Burton yesterday on GSOC, she will ask the Cabinet to approve the appointment of a legal professional to review the situation as early as today.

"If the review comes back with a recommendation that changes to legislation are needed then work will begin on that immediately," said a source.

One of the journalists who is at the centre of the controversy, Conor Feehan, last night welcomed the new impetus.

Mr Feehan, who works for Independent News and Media, noted that it had taken five days since the revelations initially emerged for a coherent Government response.

"This is how long it has taken them to realise the gravity of the situation and how it affects the wider democratic society," he said.

"The accessing of private phone records is not just a matter that journalists need to be wary of.

"Everybody could potentially be a target of such snooping under the current laws as they stand." 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, which has already succeeded in striking down an EU data retention directive.

Under Irish laws, telecommunications companies must keep phone records for two years and email and internet records for 12 months.

Digital Rights Ireland said that, at a minimum, it is seeking to have a layer of judicial oversight introduced.

Sinn Féin justice spokesman Pádraig Mac Lochlainn called on Ms Fitzgerald to tell the Dáil how many journalists have been monitored.

"The seemingly routine nature of self-warranted investigation into journalists' sources is a very worrying insight into the inner workings of those who are meant to defend the public good," he said.

The National Union of Journalists said that Ms Fitzgerald should immediately draft legislative changes, in order to adequately address the situation before the current Government is dissolved.

"There is all-party agreement on the need for a legislative fix and on that basis it seems to me that legislation could be brought forward very quickly," the Irish Secretary of the NUJ, Seamus Dooley, said.

"There is not a heavy legislative programme between now and (the) election. It would be possible for the whips to sit down and agree to legislate very quickly."

He added that international best practice is based on the European Convention of Human Rights, which recognises the right to freedom of expression.

Irish Independent

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