Taoiseach to consider law to protect journalists' sources following alleged INM data breach

Micheál Martin said any violation of a journalist’s data should be a criminal offence.

THE GOVERNMENT IS to consider introducing new laws to ensure the protection of journalistic sources.

The issue of the alleged data breach at Independent News and Media (INM) was the first issue to be raised on the first day of the new Dáil term today.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that “given recent revelations, yes we are going to have to give consideration to legislation in this area to protect sources”.

Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin told the Taoiseach that an “independent and free media is essential to the operation to a parliamentary democracy”. He added that journalists have the right to expect that there will be no undue interference in there work and “is something we should all hold dear”.

The alleged data breach at the company, which publishes the Irish Independent, Herald and Sunday World among others, has piqued the interest of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE). The State’s corporate governance watchdog applied to the High Court to appoint inspectors to investigate the media group. (INM has attempted to block any such appointment.)

It has been revealed that the group’s IT system backup tapes may have been physically removed from INM’s premises.

Yesterday, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) made an application in the High Court to have inspectors appointed to INM. However, INM sought to block the application, with the largest shareholder of INM, billionaire Denis O’Brien stating in a letter to the court that he plans to hold the director “fully and personally responsible” for the leaking of the initial affidavit filing, an allegation the ODCE denied repeatedly in court. Much of the details of the affidavit had been reported through the media, including INM titles such as the Irish Independent and the Sunday Independent.

The recent revelations serve as a “wake up call to the Oireachtas… to consider legislation to deal with these issues,” said Martin. He said work on the issue has already been carried out by the former Chief Justice John Murray, UNESCO, and the Centre for Media Plurality.

Martin said any violation of a journalist’s data should be a criminal offence.

He said he is not aware of the drafting on any legislation – either by the government or the opposition – surrounding this issue, and said he would be speaking to the Communications Minister Denis Naughten about the introduction of such law.

“Time has certainly come for government to dust down those reports and give consideration to legislation in this area,” he added.

The Taoiseach then addressed the issue of the alleged data breach at INM, stating:

I think having an independent news and media is the cornerstone of our democracy. It is after all the fourth estate. I believe journalists must be free to pursue stories that they want to pursue, their sources should be protected from any unjust interference… We need plurality of voices in the media and we need to ensure these voices are not drowned out or silenced and we also need diversity in ownership.
I commend journalists who worked to report on this story, including journalists in Independent News and Media who haven’t allowed their independence be compromised. Reports of the data breach represent a very significant threat to the freedom of our press. However I think the way the media has responded to this to date should reassure us that our press will not be silenced.

“Obviously any alleged breach of private data is a matter of concern,” he added, highlighting that this is now a matter before the courts.

Martin also raised the issue of the possibility of the director of the ODCE being held personally liable in court for leaks to the media. He called on the Taoiseach to reaffirm to the House that the director of ODCE, as a civil servant, cannot be held personally liable for carrying out his job.

“I think it is very important that the message goes out from the Houses and this government that an actor of the State is indemnified and will not lose out personally in any way from conducting his duty on behalf of the taxpayer and on behalf of the State,” said Martin.

The Taoiseach replied that in terms of indemnity “it is absolutely the case that any public service that acts properly and acts in accordance with their mandate and doesn’t breach any law … is of course indemnified by the State”.

Martin told the Dáil: “There is no evidence to date that they [the ODCE] leaked anything – no agent of the State should have to work under that intimidatory cloud.”

The Fianna Fáil leader said the government cannot “hang around too long” when it comes to legislating to protect the sources of journalists.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald also raised the alleged data breach, and said if the government was serious about tackling white-collar crime, then the ODCE should be better resourced. The Taoiseach said there were 36 staff working at the ODCE and a number of gardaí were also assigned to the office. He said there are currently four vacancies to be filled.

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