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NUJ in Irish parliament to discuss FOI legislation

6 February 2013

The NUJ will appear before a parliamentary committee on Wednesday 6 February 2013 to discuss major changes to freedom of information legislation in Ireland.

The Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform will hear a submission which broadly welcomes legislation to reverse changes to the original legislation brought in by the Fianna Fáil/PD coaliaiton.

The NUJ-led opposition to the changes and the new Bill is a significant step for advocated of open government.

Irish Secretary Séamus Dooley will be introduced by IEC Cathaoirleach Gerry Curran and the committee will question NUJ members and prominent journalists Emma O'Kelly, RTÉ, Michael Brennan, Irish Independent, and Ken Foxe, Irish Mail on Sunday, and acknowledged as one of the most prolific and efficient users of the FOI Act. Also attending will be RTÉ Trade Union Group Vice Chair, Colm Ó Mongáin, a leading broadcaster with RTÉ.

Going in to the committee, Séamus Dooley said:

"Freedom of Information is an ethos rather than an administrative mechanism and in that context the total abolition of fees would be out preferred option.
"The current fee structure - and the insistence on upfront payments, is a particular disincentive to freelance journalists and small independent media companies.
"Our members across the regional and national media – print, electronic, online, at regional and national level report that FOI requests are simply unaffordable. There is also a belief that the fee structure is designed as a way of discouraging requests.
"We welcome the major improvements, including the extension of the Act to include the police and major State financial institutions but legislation change must be accompanied by an ethos of open government. Legislation alone cannot achieve that."

Irish members reclaim the light

NUJ members in Ireland have urged parliamentarians to embrace the spirit of Freedom of Information legislation by eliminating prohibitive charges for requests and appeals as part of the reformed FOI Act planned by Minister Brendan Howlin.

The original Freedom of Information Act was influenced by the NUJ led 'Let in the Light campaign' and in Leinster House today the union urged the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform to promote a new ethos of openness and transparency within public administration in Ireland.

Gerry Curran warned that for the Freedom of Information Act to work "every society and public body needs to make a decision to overcome the legacy and secrecy of the past."

Summing up the experience of NUJ members, Gerry Curran said:

"Many public bodies do not publish online, information already released under the FOI Act. We have heard stories of people being told to submit an FOI request for information already gathered.
"We have experience of the stonewalling of journalists' requests through unhelpful explanations of what records are held, delays in responses and appeals and a creative interpretation of exclusions and exemptions to the Act."

The NUJ has a long record of campaigning for open government and worked over many years for the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act in Ireland.

Séamus Dooley reminded the committee that the union had opposed the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003 which he said had torn the heart out of the original legislation. The Minster is planning to restore some of the features of the original bill as well as extending the scope of the Act but is committed at this stage to retaining the fee structure.

The issue of fees is one of the major areas of concern for the NUJ.

The NUJ believes that transparency should be a key component of public administration in a democracy and Séamus Dooley urged the committee to recommend an end to all charges. He said that if charges are to be retained the union would favour significant changes.

The NUJ believes that any fees system should be based on the principle of the public interest.

In that spirit we propose -

  • that the upfront €15 fee be removed
  • that, in situations where the request for information has served the public interest, fees should be waived. This reflects a similar principle at operation in the higher courts where fees for constitutional actions which have served the public interest are borne by the exchequer
  • disputes as to whether an information request met the public interest test could be adjudicated upon by the Information Commissioner.

Many institutions involved in journalism education have noted that training in use of FOI legislation has been inhibited by the cost of FOI requests and appeals.

Consideration should be given to exemptions for requests made by students for the purpose of training in use of the FOI Act.

Both parties in the present government have strongly advocated a return to the principles announced in 1997. The NUJ believes that many of our current difficulties stem from abandoning those principles and that forthright action is required for real reform.

Irish Times: Committee urged to abolish FOI fees (external link)

Tags: , open government, rté, broadcasting, irish times, newspapers, foi, iec, parliament ireland, irish independent, irish mail on sunday, rté, new media, regional media