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Judge to review Garda access to journalists' mobile data

Published 19/01/2016

The Justice Minister said she had no information on specific requests for phone records made during criminal investigations
The Justice Minister said she had no information on specific requests for phone records made during criminal investigations

A judge has been asked to review the Garda and Garda Ombudsman's powers to access journalists' mobile phone data.

John L Murray, a former chief justice, has been tasked with the inquiry after at least three journalists learned their records had been analysed without them being told.

It is understood a key plank of the retired judge's review will be to analyse how other countries give police and watchdogs access to telephone records and whether Ireland is out of sync.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said she had no information on specific requests for phone records made during criminal investigations.

"A free press plays a pre-eminent role in any democratic society in fostering full, free and informed debate on all issues of public concern. It is therefore of fundamental importance in any healthy democracy that journalists should be able to carry out their legitimate work unhindered," she said.

The minister also said the inquiry does not reflect a lack of confidence in the country's police watchdog.

Mr Murray has been asked to report back in three months.

His review will examine the law and powers given to the Garda, the Garda Ombudsman, the Revenue Commissioners and the Defence Forces to access phone data.

Police and their watchdogs have the right to access call and text message records and other data in a criminal inquiry under the Communications (Data Retention) Act 2011, the Department of Justice said.

Ms Fitzgerald said genuine concerns have been raised over a lack of balance for journalists to freely pursue matters of public interest and people's basic rights to keep their personal information confidential.

"While bodies investigating crime need to have the appropriate statutory powers available to them to carry out their duties, we need to examine the balance in respect of entirely legitimate journalistic activity being carried out in the public interest," she said.

The controversy was sparked last week when journalists learned the Garda Ombudsman had access to their phone data as it investigated complaints against gardai who allegedly leaked information following the death of model Katy French in 2007.

Records were being accessed to see if individual officers were in contact with journalists.

Separately, several Garda inquiries are under way into how leaks were made to journalists, including reports on the arrest of Independent TD Clare Daly for alleged drink-driving. She was later proven to have been under the legal limit.

The National Union of Journalists called for judges to be asked to oversee applications for access to phone data.

Vodafone figures showed 7,973 requests for communications data from police and security agencies from April 2014 to March 2015, compared with 4,124 in the previous year.

Mr Murray's review will examine the law allowing state bodies to access data held by phone companies, taking into account the principle of protecting journalists' sources and the need for police to have the powers to prevent and detect serious crime.

Ms Fitzgerald held talks with the chairman of the Garda Ombudsman, Judge Mary-Ellen Ring, and said she got assurances about clear and strict procedures for accessing phone data.

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