Call for Gsoc and Minister for Justice to ‘urgently’ address journalists’ phones being accessed

Irish Council for Civil Liberties says accessing by Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission to identify sources raises serious concerns

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties said it was concerned about the 'lawfulness and transparency' of data scraping practices. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The secret accessing of journalists’ phone records raises “many questions” that must be “urgently” addressed by the Government and Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc), Ireland’s biggest civil liberties group has said.

Describing the tactics as “surveillance activity” by Gsoc against journalists, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) said it was concerned about the “lawfulness and transparency” of the data scraping practices. It believed key questions must now be answered.

“Whose sources were targeted and why? What legal basis did Gsoc rely on to carry out this activity? When did this activity begin and how often does it occur?” asked ICCL executive director Liam Herrick.

“The tracing of journalists’ sources, under unclear circumstances, risks undermining press freedom and the public’s access to information.”


Mr Herrick added “given the important issues at stake regarding protection of journalism” Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and Gsoc “should address these questions as a matter of urgency”.

The ICCL made its call after it emerged several journalists were now considering suing Gsoc after securing their personal data from the watchdog, which confirmed their phone records were checked.

In reply to queries, Gsoc said “where there is evidence” that a Garda member “may have disclosed sensitive or personal information about a member of the public” it is obliged by law to investigate.

Why the Garda watchdog is now under fire over surveillance on journalists’ phonesOpens in new window ]

Such a disclosure was a criminal offence and it, Gsoc, was permitted “subject to strict compliance with the law” to access phone records. It declined to make any further comment and did not respond to questions about whether it had accessed journalists’ phone records.

The Department of Justice, in reply to queries, said: “Gsoc is entirely independent in the exercise of its statutory functions under the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and is required, to carry out its functions in accordance with the law.”

Gsoc is the Garda watchdog body that investigates allegations of wrongdoing, including criminality, made against gardaí. In 2016 The Irish Times revealed the agency had secretly accessed the phone records of two journalists in an attempt to identify their sources. The agency did so as part of an investigation into Garda members accused of leaking information to the journalists.

More recently, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been forced to admit repeatedly accessing the phone records of journalists in the North for more than a decade. In the Republic, several journalists have secured their personal data held by Gsoc and they believe those records prove the Garda watchdog accessed their phone records in an attempt to identify sources.

The journalists, a number of whom have spoken to The Irish Times, said they believed their records were accessed as part of investigations into gardaí, noting they faced no allegations themselves. It is an offence for gardaí to leak information, but only if a disclosure was “likely to have a harmful effect”. It is not an offence for journalists to receive information.

The ICCL said journalists played “a significant public-watchdog role in Irish society” adding “the protection of their sources” was “of vital importance so that they can exercise their professional activities”.

It noted that the protection of sources was guaranteed by the Constitution and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That protection had “been repeatedly established” by the European Court of Human Rights, added the ICCL.

The Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 was amended in 2015, enabling Gsoc and the Garda to access citizens’ telephone records.

The National Union of Journalists has also expressed its concern, saying it planned to contact both Gsoc and the Ms McEntee seeking clarity on what has taken place to date.

NUJ secretary in Ireland, Seamus Dooley, said while Gsoc was an independent investigative body it was “not independent of the values of State”.

He added the agency’s role was to investigate gardaí and ensure they operated ethically. Journalism “is not a crime” and anything that threatened the journalism process, and the sources reporters speak to, was a matter of real concern.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times