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Irish freelances recognised by parliamentary study on FOI

26 June 2013

An Irish parliamentary committee has recognised the unique role of freelance journalists by advocating a special registration system for them to make Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

The report of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform proposed that freelances would require one annual upfront registration fee, rather than the current fee per request.

The committee, chaired by Labour TD Ciarán Lynch, also proposed that FOI legislation should automatically be extended to all new bodies and supports the reform of the Irish legislation in line with the NUJ's strong submission to the committee.

Gerry Curran, Irish Executive Council Chair, and Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary, led a delegation to the committee and the union had highlighted the high cost of fees, which have become a disincentive to FOI requesters.

Deputy Lynch acknowledged the value of the NUJ presentation. Welcoming Séamus Dooley to the launch at Leinster House, he said the committee had taken on board many of the union's concerns.

Séamus Dooley said that the NUJ remains committed to the principle that there should be no fees for FOI requests. In a statement, he said the committee had acknowledged the financial burden placed on freelance journalists and the impact of fees on regional titles with limited financial resources.

The committee report will now be considered by Minister Brendan Howlin, who is drafting new legislation which is expected to reverse changes which decimated the original FOI legislation.

Barry McCall, NUJ president, said:

"As a union, we have been consistent in our support for FOI and we welcome the measure of agreement between the Oireachtas committee and the NUJ on the reforms needed. Outside the immediate issue it's refreshing to see parliamentarians recognising that freelance journalists are a central part of the media, play an important role in democracy and should be facilitated by government."

The committee also supported the NUJ contention that there must be a strong public interest test for exemptions to FOI legislation and the committee echoed the NUJ submission regarding the central role of transparency in a modern democracy.

The Committee recommended separate legislation for access to both public and official information held by public bodies as distinct from legislation for 'personal information' held by both public and private bodies – thereby mirroring the UK where data protection is used for 'personal information' and FOI for access to public and official info held by public bodies.

The Committee agreed that monopoly semi-state providers should have to comply to the rigours of the FOI, new bodies should have to comply with FOI from day one and commercial semi-states where there are alternative providers should have a limited inclusion.

Committee Chairman Ciarán Lynch said:

"This report forms part of the initial stages of a wider legislative process. The Joint Committee considers that information given in isolation and with no context is worse than useless because it encourages complacency and the misapprehension that we are being transparent. Freedom of Information is about culture.
"Opening up is as much about linking data as it is about publishing more data. Government and public bodies possess enormous amounts of data. The challenge is about linking the data so as to make it more useful and accessible, allowing policy makers, those who invigilate policy makers and legislators to draw the correct conclusions."

Tags: , legislation, foi, freelance, parliament ireland