Global Witness data victory against mining billionaire underlines exemption for journalistic material

The Information Commissioner has rejected a bid from Israeli mining billionaire Beny Steinmetz to use the Data Protection Act to compel investigators to hand over the files they hold on him.

The decision has been welcomed as victory for press freedom because it states that information held by campaigners for journalistic purposes is exempt from being handed over under the Act.

Steinmetz, owner of mining company BSG Resources (BSGR), along with three executives of his company Onyx Financial Advisers, tried to force campaign group Global Witness to reveal information it held about them.

Global Witness has been investigating how BSGR acquired the rights to Africa’s largest iron ore project.

The campaign group said that confidential sources would be compromised if the legal action was successful.

In a ruling letter dated 15 December 2014, the Information Commissioner’s Office said it was “satisfied that Global Witness is only processing the personal data requested by the data subjects for the purpose of journalism”.

Leigh Baldwin, an investigative journalist for Global Witness, said on the NGO’s website: “It is a victory for press freedom because it defines journalists by what they do, not whom they work for.”

Mark Stephens, a solicitor specialising in media law and data protection for the Howard Kennedy firm, said: “Claimants have increasingly been using data protection laws to bully and intimidate organisations and NGO’s to reveal information about the shape of their enquiries and discover their sources.

“The ICO has seen how the law can be used abusively and has stamped on it.”

Anya Proops, barrister in the case, said: “What this decision demonstrates is that victory for the Data Protection Act claimant is far from assured, particularly where the defendant is engaged in public interest journalism…those claimants who had been hoping that the Data Protection Act would offer a powerful means of neutering the media are likely to find little comfort in this decision”.

To qualify for the ICO exemption for journalists, four elements must be met:

1. That the data is processed only for journalism, art or literature,

2. with a view to publication of some material,

3. with a reasonable belief that publication is in the public interest, and

4. with a reasonable belief that compliance is incompatible with journalism.

Following the ruling, a spokesman for Steinmetz and the other claimants said: “The ICO has not applied the law correctly and we will be asking the courts to review its decision.” (FT)

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