A number of journalists have been interviewed by gardaí recently in attempts to uncover their sources while others have discovered records of their phonecalls and other communications were obtained without their knowledge.
Seamus Dooley, head of the NUJ in Ireland, said it was a “major concern” that so many journalists were under investigation and that protection of sources was being compromised.
The probes relate to at least seven different cases, four headed by gardaí and the rest by GSOC, the Ombudsman Commission.
They include the leaking of information about a child abuse investigation involving an unnamed former government minister which led to former TD Pat Carey resigning as Fianna Fáil’s director of elections after he said fingers were pointing, wrongly, at him.
Another high-profile case relates to media reports about charges to be brought against TD Paul Murphy and others involved in the water charges protest during which Tánaiste Joan Burton was trapped in her car.
Others relate to the wrongful removal by gardaí of two Roma children from their homes in 2013 amid fears they had been abducted, leaked banking inquiry details, and the arrest of TD Clare Daly on unfounded suspicions of drink-driving.
The Garda probes could lead to charges under the Official Secrets Act or Garda Síochána Act but GSOC also has extensive powers to investigate and build cases for criminal prosecution.
Its hand was recently strengthened when it was granted the same powers to obtain phone records without warrants as were already available to the gardaí, defence forces and Revenue Commissioners.
Mr Dooley said the move had potentially serious implications for the ability of the press to do their job and protect their sources.
“There should be an industry-wide response from editors, from media owners, from representative groups, and from journalists because this is a matter which affects every journalist.”
TJ McIntyre, law lecturer and chairman of Digital Rights Ireland, said the media should launch a legal challenge. Protection of sources is a right confirmed by the Supreme Court and European Court of Human Rights but it is not expressly written into the law here.
In 2014, Digital Rights Ireland successfully challenged an EU directive that allowed the retention of private citizens’ communications data for two years and access to it without warrant. The group is using that victory to challenge surveillance and data retention laws here in a case due before the High Court shortly.
“One of the main reasons that we succeeded against the EU law was precisely the fact that it didn’t require an independent judge to sign off on requests to access this data. We argue that same principle should apply in Irish law,” he said.
Neither GSOC nor the gardaí had any comment.