IRELAND: Data breach raises concerns over confidentiality of journalists’ sources

(CIVICUS Monitor)

News publisher Independent News and Media (INM) is under two investigations by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner and the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement for its alleged involvement in a breach of confidential data from journalists’ emails. This data may have been shared with third parties, including foreign companies who might have had access to several backup copies of electronic data stored on INM’s servers from 2014.

Allegations were made linking INM’s largest shareholder, controversial billionaire Denis O’Brien, to the breach after a document with nineteen names of “persons of interest” was found and which contained the names of several investigative journalists and barristers linked to the Moriarty Tribunal – another public inquiry which involved O’Brien. Nevertheless, the extent of the alleged breach might have much wider consequences. The information in the emails could include names of journalists’ sources, thus posing a potentially significant threat to investigative journalism.

Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney warned that the incident could have a chilling effect on whistleblowers coming forward to journalists with information as their anonymity is no no longer ensured. Feeney stated that:

“If a person has a doubt whether the guarantee of confidentiality means anything, they won’t pass on that information and journalism will suffer”.

Seamus Dooley, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists in Ireland, expressed concernthat:

“We would have a particular concern if journalists’ data is compromised and I believe the decision, allegedly taken by an non-executive chairman, to have data removed and interrogated out of the country, that put at risk all data, so there is a serious issue there. […] Journalists are obliged to protect confidential sources of information and of course, normally when we associate protecting sources we identify the threat as being external. What is alleged here is that the threat came internally and that makes it all the more serious”.

He added that this case highlights a broader problem with media in Ireland, namely the issue of  concentrated “media control and ownership”.

The CIVICUS Monitor has previously reported on the risks to freedom of expression caused by controversial media ownership arrangements in Ireland. Denis O’ Brien is a significant shareholder in the Irish media landscape, also wholly owning Communicorp, a media holding company which owns eight radio stations in Ireland. INM publishes seven national newspapers and thirteen regional weekly newspapers.

New data protection measures have been implemented in the media company as a consequence of the incident and investigations will give insight on the reasons for the privacy breach. Editor-in-chief of the INM-owned Irish Independent Stephen Rae said in an email to staff concerning these measures:

“It is a testimony to the integrity and ethos in our newsroom that the concern foremost in the minds of journalists over the past number of days has been the protection of our sources and the integrity of our systems for internal and external providers. For journalists, there can be no more fundamental requirement to carry out our job in an efficient and effective manner than the protection of our sources”.

Inquiry into abuse against whistleblower makes progress

Between March and April, hearings where held in the Disclosures Tribunal over an alleged smear campaign by the leadership of An Garda Siochana (Ireland’s police service) against whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe. The hearings are now coming to a close and a final statement from the Tribunal is expected in the summer.

McCabe had raised complaints of malpractice and corruption within the police service and, as a result, was targeted through intimidation and false sexual abuse claims. The hearings are examining whether Garda management had provided misleading information to politicians, journalists, and others in order to discredit McCabe.

The Disclosures Tribunal has thus far uncovered evidence implicating two police commissioners, two ministers of justice and at least one head of the department of justice in the conspiracy.

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