Rights group says GSOC review will not halt legal challenge
A review of the legislation allowing the Garda watchdog to snoop on journalists' phone records will not be enough to halt a major legal case being taken by campaigners.
Digital Rights Ireland said the scope of the review, announced at the weekend by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, was "very narrow". The group said it did not address concerns regarding the length of time telecoms companies must retain customer data.
Ms Fitzgerald has bowed to pressure from civil rights groups, including Amnesty International and Transparency International, in announcing the review. It followed an outcry after it emerged last week that at least two journalists had their phone records accessed by Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) as part of an investigation into alleged garda leaks to the media.
The probe was launched following a complaint by a friend of the late model Katy French, who died of a drugs overdose in 2007. GSOC was able to secure phone records without first having to get a judge's approval.
Journalists, including Conor Feehan, who works for Independent News and Media, were not informed their records had been accessed.
It is understood that powers enjoyed by GSOC, An Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces and the Revenue Commissioners to access phone and email information will all be examined.
Digital Rights Ireland said the announcement would not deflect the organisation from pursuing its High Court case against the State, which is seeking to strike down Irish data retention laws and laws allowing gardaí and GSOC access to phone and email records.
The organisation has already been successful in challenging an EU data retention directive.
Digital Rights Ireland chairman and UCD law professor Dr TJ McIntyre said he was worried that only general information had been given about what the review would entail.
He said that the issue of people having their phone and email records accessed by the authorities was not just one affecting journalists, but the whole population.
Dr McIntyre added: "This doesn't do anything to address our criticisms that telecommunications companies must by law retain call and text records for two years and email records for one year."
Ms Fitzgerald said she was constrained in what she could say due to the legal challenge.
However, she said issues of concern had been raised as to whether there was the right balance between the freedom of journalists to pursue legitimate matters of public interest, and the basic rights of persons not to have information relating to them improperly disclosed.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who last week said he would regard the accessing of the phone records of journalists as "a little bit odd and sinister", gave his backing to Ms Fitzgerald yesterday. "She is totally on top of it so whatever she is doing, I am fully supportive of it," he said.
Mr Varadkar also said he was sure GSOC would comment on the issue at some point. The commission has declined to answer questions from the media on the furore to date.