NUJ expresses concern over Freedom of Information judgement
4 April 2019
The NUJ has voiced concern and surprise over the decision of High Court judge, Mr Justice Garrett Simons, to overturn the decision of the Information Commissioner, Peter Tyndall, that required University College Cork to furnish certain information to RTÉ concerning a €100 million loan agreement between UCC and the European Investment Bank.
The NUJ expressed anger over the comment from the judge that Mr Tyndall had erred by taking as his starting point a presumption in favour of disclosure that would require the university to justify its refusal to give certain information to RTÉ. Without that presumption there is no Freedom of information worth considering.
At the core of the 1997 Act was the change from a presumption of secrecy to one of openness and that rather than assume everything held by government and public bodies was automatically secret the onus would now be put on the public body to argue why it could not make some information public. The protections put in place were the appeals system and the role of the Information Commission as a guardian of the public good.
This ruling undermines the Freedom of Information Act as it takes away that presumption so central to any regime of openness, transparency and accountability.
Since the introduction of the Act it has served journalists acting in the public interest in disclosing that which those holding power would prefer was hidden, as well as giving private citizens the right to their own information being held by public bodies and government.
Many politicians have never been happy with the existence of the Act. The original legislation was amended in 2003 in what the then information commissioner, Emily O’Reilly, called ‘a step back from the commitment to openness, transparency and accountability’. In 2014, the Act was restored, and more bodies added.
The NUJ and its members campaigned for the original Act and there will be deep disappointment in this decision, which undermines FOI. It will also have a negative impact on Ireland’s international standing in terms of its commitment to free speech.
The judgement will be considered by the NUJ’s Ethics Council in greater detail and a more considered statement issued at that time. In the meantime, the NUJ hopes the judgement is challenged in the Supreme Court.