The Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has ruled out any rush to change the laws on phone snooping laws. However, the review she has ordered into the legislation will not be completed before she leaves office.
Ms Fitzgerald said she wanted the “strongest possible” legal protections in place for journalists’ sources, saying it was of “fundamental importance”that journalists should be able to carry out their legitimate work unhindered.
However, she has given Mr Justice John Murray three months to make recommendations on what changes might be needed to the powers of gardaí, Revenue, Defence Forces and the Garda Ombudsman (GSOC) to access journalists’ phone records without warrant.
A new government will be in place by then with no certainty that Ms Fitzgerald will be back in Cabinet.
Fianna Fáil is to propose draft legislation today that would prevent GSOC accessing confidential communications between a journalist and their source without a High Court order but the minister rejected suggestions that she could cut short the process by simply amending the law now.
“There are complex rights involved here. I think it’s worthy of this kind of examination rather than rushing into changing legislation,” she said.
Ms Fitzgerald was speaking after announcing the appointment of Mr Justice Murray, a former attorney general and chief justice, to carry out an independent review of the law.
The move follows controversy over the revelation that at least three journalists have had their phone records scrutinised by GSOC without their knowledge as part of investigations into alleged leaks by Garda sources. Around a dozen are under investigation as part of GSOC and Garda probes into leaks.
Mr Justice Murray is being asked to examine all the law that grants powers to statutory bodies to access, without warrant, the phone records and other communications data of journalists.
“A free press plays a pre-eminent role in any democratic society, in fostering a full, free and informed debate on all issues of public concern. I want to ensure that the law is the strongest possible it can be in terms of the protection of journalists’ sources and if further oversight or further improvements can be made, I want to hear about that,” said Ms Fitzgerald.
She warned, however, that there was a balance to be struck between the protection of sources, the public interest and the necessity for gardaí to have access to records for serious criminal investigations.
A total of 5,865 requests to access phone data was made by statutory bodies in 2014 as follows: 5,531 by gardaí, 246 by the Defence Forces, 15 by the Revenue Commissioners and 91 by GSOC.
The minister said she did not know how many requests related to jounalists’ data and was not privy to such information from an independent body. She said however, she met GSOC chair Mary Ellen Ring, yesterday and had been assured all such requests were made in accordance with the law.
That claim has been challenged with questions if a suspected media leak can be regarded a serious criminal offence as required under snooping legislation.
Ms Fitzgerald said her department had also been in discussions with Garda management and had been assured it also followed the letter of the law in accessing communications. She said under separate powers on phone tapping and communications interception that require her authorisation as minister, she had no information on the surveillance of any journalists.
“I certainly have not signed any warrant in relation to the investigation of journalists,” she said.
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