herald

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Taoiseach piles more pressure on scandal-ridden GSOC over spying on journalists' phones

Scandal

Enda Kenny has issued a rebuke to GSOC
Enda Kenny has issued a rebuke to GSOC

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has slammed the garda watchdog for snooping on journalists' phone records.

Mr Kenny's stinging rebuke has piled pressure on the scandal-ridden Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).

It emerged last week that GSOC accessed the phone records of two journalists, including the Herald's chief reporter Conor Feehan. Yesterday, the Taoiseach responded to the scandal for the first time.

"Clearly the fundamental principle of journalistic sources being confidential is very important in a democracy," he said.

GSOC's snooping came about following a complaint by a friend of the late model Katy French about alleged garda leaks.

But the Taoiseach said there was a difference between "this kind of incident and one where national security might arise, so the minister will respond appropriately and quickly in this regard".

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is now facing growing pressure to act before the election to change the legislation that allows the garda watchdog to review the phone records of journalists.

Tanaiste Joan Burton said it "goes without saying that the protection of journalism sources is of critical and primary importance, and the Government will address that".

It is understood the Labour Party favours a system similar to the UK whereby each application for accessing data on a journalist's phone usage would be examined by an independent judge.

GSOC has repeatedly failed to explain why it authorised investigators to obtain the records of at least two journalists.

Last night, a spokesperson for GSOC refused to comment on the Taoiseach's criticism.

Reporter Conor Feehan pointed out that it took five days for both the Taoiseach and Tanaiste to comment.

"The reaction of Enda Kenny and Joan Burton - together with comments on Saturday by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald calling for the laws that allow GSOC such powers to be reviewed - show a fundamental lack of faith in GSOC, an organisation that blunders from one debacle to the next with barely a pause for breath.

Target

"A question that needs to be asked now is if this watchdog needs a watchdog of its own - is it fit for purpose in the first place? Despite the fact that their responses have come this late they are, however, welcome," he added.

"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.

"Anybody acting as whistleblower could find themselves under the spotlight of investigators determined to root them out."

It's understood that Minister Fitzgerald will seek approval from Cabinet today to appoint an "eminent person" from the legal profession to review the laws.

This person will be tasked with reviewing international best practice and looking at the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011, which GSOC has relied on when accessing phone records of journalists.

"The review will only look at the section as it relates to journalists so it will be completed as soon as possible. It will not be a drawn out process," a source said.

However, any legislative changes that might be recommended by the review are highly unlikely to be drafted before the General Election.

At the weekend, Ms Fitzgerald proposed a "scoping exercise" within her department but the Taoiseach and Tanaiste both inserted a new urgency into the debate yesterday.

"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," Mr Kenny added.

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

The National Union of Journalists said that Ms Fitzgerald should immediately look at drafting legislative changes in order to adequately address the situation before the current government is dissolved.

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

Fatal

"It's very naive to imagine this would be a priority of the incoming Dail," Irish Secretary of the NUJ Seamus Dooley said.

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

Additionally, last summer it emerged that a garda in Donegal who took his own life had been the subject of a GSOC investigation following a fatal traffic accident - but was not told that he had been cleared of any wrongdoing before he ended his life.

In a letter to his wife, Sergeant Michael Galvin of Ballyshannon Garda Station in Co Donegal said he could not take the pressure of the GSOC investigation which had left him feeling like a criminal.

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