Saturday 21 April 2018

Varadkar: snooping on journalist phone records is 'a little bit odd and sinister'

Leo Varadkar. Photo: Arthur Carron
Leo Varadkar. Photo: Arthur Carron
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A senior government minister has described the accessing of journalists' phone records by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) as "a little bit odd and sinister".

Health Minister Leo Varadkar made the comments as pressure mounts on his Cabinet colleague, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, to review legislation introduced last year which gave far-reaching snooping powers to the garda watchdog.

Mr Varadkar said that if the phone records of journalists had been accessed, it represented "an infringement on freedoms".

His comments came amid controversy over GSOC's accessing of the phone records of two journalists as part of an investigation into allegations of garda leaks to the media.

Neither of the journalists was informed their records were being scrutinised.

One of the reporters involved, Conor Feehan, works for Independent News and Media, the publishers of the Irish Independent.

Two gardaí have been quizzed as part of the probe, which was sparked by a complaint to GSOC by a friend of the late model Katy French, who died of a drug overdose in December 2007.

Amnesty International yesterday backed calls for the legislation to be reviewed.

Amnesty executive director Colm O'Gorman said it was essential that the scrutiny of communications should be subject to judicial supervision.

Under laws enacted last year, GSOC was given garda-level powers to access the phone and email records of individuals.

The garda watchdog can access such records without first getting the clearance of a judge.

It is refusing to comment on the issue and questions submitted by the Irish Independent about the general procedures the commission uses have gone unanswered.

Commenting on the controversy, Mr Varadkar said he would be speaking with Ms Fitzgerald about it in the coming days.

"I do think there is something a little bit odd and sinister that any Government body would be monitoring the phones of journalists," he said.

"If that is the case [it] would represent an infringement on freedoms in my view."

Ms Fitzgerald declined to comment. Her spokesman said it would be inappropriate to do so while the State's communications data regime is subject to a legal challenge.

Fine Gael's coalition partners Labour also declined to make any comment on the issue.

A High Court cases challenging data retention laws is being taken by the campaign group Digital Rights Ireland, which previously succeeded in having an EU data retention directive struck down.

Amnesty International executive director Colm O'Gorman said a free press was a key building block of any society.

He said State scrutiny "of anyone's communications, be they journalist or not, needs to be directed toward a legitimate aim and proportionate."

"It should only be used according to a strict legal framework to guard against violations of the right to privacy and should be subject to judicial supervision."

Fianna Fail justice spokesman Niall Collins said a possible review of the legislation should be examined.

"No-one would wish to undermine long-standing journalists' freedoms," he said.

"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."

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section