As the Irish Government moves to restrict the Freedom of Information Act, it has been accused by the NUJ of adopting an “Alice in Wonderland” approach to openness and transparency in public life and administration.
NUJ Irish secretary Seamus Dooley claimed: “There was no justification for a last-minute dash to amend the legislation.”
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A key Government proposal in the new legislation will be the stipulation that Cabinet documents will not be released until they are 10 years old, instead of five.
While the media is not the biggest user of the FoI act, its usage has been recognised as having the most telling impact. Use of the act has been steadily increasing. In 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, 3,100 applications were made by journalists, up 23 per cent on 2000.
Government officials have pointed to instances of the honourable intentions of the act being abused by cranks and what they describe as “cheap-headline-seeking” reporters. In future, a fee of about E20 (£13.60) will be charged for all applications. The verdict of journalists on the changes is that while the Govern-ment’s changes will not kill the act, they will seriously wound it.
The European Federation of Journalists is also campaigning against the watering down of the act.
“The Irish Freedom of Information Act is one of the best pieces of access legislation in Europe and a proud statement of confidence in Irish democracy,” said Aidan White, EFJ general secretary.
“Plans to dilute the law will have a devastating effect. They will weaken the people’s right to know and put Ireland on a track back to official secrecy and government behind closed doors.”
The NUJ in Ireland has called on the Government to withdraw the freedom of information amendment bill and to engage in a public process of consultation over the next year.
The union says the current bill is flawed and marks the return of “British-style” secrecy to the Irish Government.
By Des Cryan in Dublin