Concern over laws to stop gardaí talking to media

Sweeping laws criminalising the disclosure of information by gardaí to the media should be re-examined, according to the National Union of Journalists.

Concern over laws to stop gardaí talking to media

The call from Seamus Dooley, the Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists, follows the release of a garda arrested on suspicion of unlawfully disclosing information to the press.

Mr Dooley called for a culture of openness in the Garda Siochána and said the way to do that was “not to clamp down” on the release of information.

Declining to comment on the specific case, Mr Dooley expressed serious concerns at the impact on media freedom and the ability of journalists to perform their public interest duties.

“I would be concerned about anything that would interfere with the free flow of information or that would give rise to a chill factor,” he said.

He said the relationship between the gardaí and the media was “an important one” and said gardaí often relied on the media to get information out.

He accepted the provision of information “does have to be balanced with the privacy of the individual”.

And he said he was concerned at the impact of the arrest: “There’s evidence already there that this had led to a concern among journalists that this will result in the default garda situation of no information for journalists. And there is a public interest concern, that there would be a barrier to the free flow of information.”

He said journalists “most of the time” operate in the public interest.

Mr Dooley said this was all against the traditional backdrop of a culture of control and secrecy with the Garda Siochána.

“We inherited what I would call the Whitehall [British civil service] culture and is reflected in the exclusion of [An] Garda from the Freedom of Information Act. In general, security is used as an excuse for secrecy.”

He did point out that there has been at times individual journalists with “an uncomfortably close relationship” with some gardaí, but added: “That stems from there not being a culture of openness: if you don’t have that then information will be exchanged on a grace or favour basis.

“The way to have an open and transparent relationship is not to clamp down on the release of information, but to make information available and have a culture of openness.”

He said the arrest raised again the controversies surrounding the legislation under which the arrest took place. The Garda Siochána Act 2005 makes it a broad offence to disclose information which “is likely to have a harmful effect” and lists 10 separate offences.

“We strongly opposed the Act at the time and we were accused of overreacting,” said Mr Dooley.

“I think we were correct then and are now. I think the legislation is far too sweeping and should be revisited.”

Solicitor Gareth Noble, however, defended the act: “The law as it stands gives people protection of anonymity until they are before the courts and the law respects the privacy of individuals and families.

“The 2005 act respects that principle, in ensuring that gardaí don’t abuse the information in their possession and put into the public domain information that prejudices an investigation or prosecution or prejudices the right to privacy of people. I think the 2005 is a good balance.”

He added that if there were gaps or deficiencies in the act they could be looked at.

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