Sunday 22 September 2019

NUJ head slams proposed data laws for failing to protect journalists and sources

Séamus Dooley. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Séamus Dooley. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The head of the National Union of Journalists has criticised proposed new data retention legislation for failing to give specific protections to reporters.

NUJ Irish secretary Seamus Dooley criticised the omission at a hearing of the Oireachtas Justice Committee.

The new laws have their genesis in a review conducted by former Chief Justice John Murray, who was asked to investigate the issue it emerged the mobile phone records of two journalists had been accessed by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

Mr Justice Murray subsequently found that existing laws should be repealed as they amount to mass surveillance of the entire population of the State.

He also recommended that the data of journalists should not be accessed by any State agency unless the journalist is the subject of a criminal investigation.

However, the general scheme of a new Communications (Data Retention) Bill 2017, published simultaneously with the Murray review last month by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, states a person’s metadata, location and subscription data can be accessed only if the person is found to be involved in a serious offence or is posing a serious threat to the State.

But it does not include specific limits on when the data of journalists can be accessed.

The omission has given rise to concerns about the protection of journalists’ sources.

While Mr Justice Murray also recommended applications for accessing data should be made to a High Court judge, the bill makes provision for District Court justices to act as authorising judges.

Mr Dooley told the committee it "beggars belief" some of Mr Justice Murray's recommendations were set aside.

“The NUJ believes that the highest level of protection, under both Irish Constitutional and international law, must be afforded to journalists in respect of privacy in their communications,” he said.

“The media plays a crucial role in maintaining accountability and transparency in the workings of civic society in a democratic state.”

Mr Dooley said that where the rights of the media were undermined, the ability of journalists to shine a light into the darkest corners is also curtailed.

He said the existing law in the area, the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011, was being applied indiscriminately and could be used to identify sources.

“Location data linking a journalist’s telephone calls with those of another caller before or after a sensitive meeting in which that person was known to have been involved can fatally compromise confidential sources of information, including from whistleblowers,” said Mr Dooley.

A written submission to the committee from NewsBrands, the organisation representing 16 national newspapers, also expressed grave concerns about the general scheme of the bill.

It noted that parts of the existing law were effectively invalidated last December by a European Court of Justice ruling.

But the new proposals do not remedy the situation as they are silent on material which could identify confidential sources.

Irish Council for Civil Liberties executive director Liam Herrick also expressed concern to the committee.

“We know this is an area of great potential risk that the State and State agencies may always have an interest, legitimate or very often illegitimate, in identifying the relationship between journalists and sources,” he said.

“We in Ireland have a particular history in this issue, going back to cases in the 1970s and 1980s, where under the cover of national security investigations or other legitimate purposes, State agencies sought information about the relationship between journalists and sources which might have certainly stepped over into the political sphere.”

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