Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has insisted she has not authorised the tapping of journalists' telephone calls by Garda bodies.
As she announced a review of the legislation allowing organisations to access the phone records of reporters, Ms Fitzgerald said she had no prior knowledge of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) availing of these powers.
Ms Fitzgerald said GSOC was an independent body and that she had no “direct information” about the cases that have been highlighted.
“I don’t have access to the details of that. We have the public record of what the journalists themselves have said,” she said.
The Minister has appointed former chief justice Mr Justice
to conduct a review of the legislation allowing access to the phone records of journalists.
Mr Justice Murray has three months to report back to the Minister and propose any legislative changes required.
He has been asked to examine the legislation in other countries and examine best international practice in this area.
Under the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011, GSOC, An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Defence Forces can monitor civilian phones with only internal approval required.
However, any move to intercept telephone calls needs a warrant to be signed by the Minister for Justice.
Ms Fitzgerald said she had not signed any order since becoming Minister allowing the tapping of calls.
There has been widespread concern after it emerged that GSOC accessed the telephone records of three journalists without their knowledge or consent.
Ms Fitzgerald said GSOC chairwoman, former High Court judge Mary Ellen Ring, had insisted the ombudsman acted within the law.
“She has assured me of the clear and strict procedures in place in GSOC in respect of this area and, indeed, she emphasises that requests for access to telephone records are decided at the level of the chairperson,” she said. “I assured Ms Justice Ring that there is no question whatsoever of the review of the law in this area reflecting any lack of confidence in GSOC and that this review arises not from the facts of any particular case, rather the general concerns which have arisen about the overall balance of the law.”
The Minister also defended her decision to review rather than amend legislation, insisting the situation was complex.
Frances Fitzgerald insisted that journalists had a right to be protected and should be allowed to pursue matters in the public interest without interference.
“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,” she said.
“It is, therefore, of fundamental importance in any healthy democracy that journalists should be able to carry out their legitimate work unhindered.”
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin said there was a balance to be struck.
“It strikes me that the situation in Britain is one that we could look at, whereby if there is a very strong view by GSOC that particular phones of journalists need to be accessed, that that could only be done with the authority of a judge, but we’ll see what the Minister for Justice brings to Cabinet,” he said.