Data breach raises concerns over confidentiality of journalists' sources

Expression

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 concern that:

“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.

Association

Referendum campaign period officially underway

At the end of March, the government announced that the referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment to the constitution is scheduled to take place on 25th May 2018. This announcement officially opened the campaign period and brought relevant provisions of Ireland's electoral laws into force. The CIVICUS Monitor previously reported on how the ambiguity surrounding the definition of a “third party” in the Electoral Act was posing a threat to civil society working on sensitive policy issues. Despite these concerns, many civil society organisations decided to register formally as third parties and accepted the more stringent funding regulation imposed by the Act as a result.

On 20th April, the Charities Regulator requested that the Project Arts Centre remove a mural related to repealing the 8th Amendment by street artist Maser, claiming that it constitutes a “political activity” which is in violation of the 2009 Charities Act. Disregarding the request would have meant that the organisation would have lost its charity status. The director of the Centre, Cian O’Brien, agreed to remove it but declared that: 

“I am calling this action today defiant compliance. Restrictive legislation has intervened in a creative institution and in order to protect the future of that institution and all the artists who work here now and may work here in the future, we have decided to comply with the order of the charities regulator”;

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) stated that the request poses a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of association in Ireland. Director Liam Herrick noted that: 

“Threatening an organisation’s charitable status for engaging in ‘political’ art is a new departure. We’d be very concerned about how the regulator defines what is or isn’t political art? Where is the line drawn and who decides that? These are serious freedom of expression questions, especially given that artistic expression is afforded higher protection under human rights law. There are also serious questions about the role of the Charities Regulator in policing the freedom of expression of charities. Are we likely to see a much wider role for the regulator in relation to freedom of speech by organisations and institutions, including the catholic church?” 

He also added that this incident could lead the Charities Regulator to threaten other organisations with requests related to other sensitive issues, and thereby contribute to a chilling effect on the sector.

NGOs involved in the campaign around the referendum have maintained a cautious approach to campaigning and most are avoiding the use of foreign funding for abortion-related activities. Despite this, some rights-based organiations have been targeted by articles and defamatory social media activities reporting misleading information on alleged links to the Hungarian philanthropist George Soros. ICCL was targeted by an anti-choice protest on 16th March, with protesters brandishing graphic anti-choice placards. ICCL has also been the subject of unfounded allegations and smear attacks on social media, including the tweet shown below:

In Ireland, space for civil society is well-protected and civil society generally receives strong support from lawmakers who regularly engage charities in policy debates. Nevertheless, funds received by civil society organisations are limited and not always free from interference. In fact, there are an increasing number of cases in which anti-advocacy clauses are inserted into grants, including those given to charities working to combat homelessness. Homelessness is one of the most pressing social problems in Ireland today, with the number of officially homeless people almost reaching the 10,000 mark in March 2018. In January 2018, it was reported that, in 2017 the Dublin Region Homeless Executive proposed limitations on organisations’ freedom to disclose information to the media. These limitations included the fact that charities would be required to ask for authorisation to speak with journalists. The move was criticised by rights groups.