NUJ calls for Freedom of Information fees to be abolished

Wednesday 06 February 2013 15.42
NUJ Secretary Seamus Dooley said Freedom of Information fees were onerous for freelance journalists
NUJ Secretary Seamus Dooley said Freedom of Information fees were onerous for freelance journalists

The Secretary of the National Union of Journalists has told an Oireachtas Committee that the union wants fees for Freedom of Information requests to be abolished.

Seamus Dooley said access to personal and public information was a feature of a modern functioning democracy, and while it may be a difficult argument to win, waiving fees is in the public interest.

Freedom of Information fees are onerous for freelance journalists and those working without the backing of a media organisation, he said.

Mary Raftery was an example of one such journalist and Mr Dooley asked who could argue that her work was not in the public interest.

Ms Raftery was best known for her "States of Fear" documentary series, which revealed the extent of physical and sexual abuse suffered by children in Irish industrial schools and residential institutions. It led to the creation of the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse.

Mr Dooley said the NUJ had represented Ms Raftery and continued to represent people like her throughout the country.

The committee was also told that the union is opposed to commercial State companies being exempt from FOI, though it acknowledged that there were commercial sensitivities.

Mr Dooley said Irish Water should not be exempt from FOI and the union did not understand, for instance, why communications between Irish Water and the regulator should not be open to scrutiny.

RTÉ Education Correspondent Emma O Kelly described a two-and-a-half year effort to secure information about the teaching of religion in primary schools in west Dublin.

She said it should be the assumption that you will get the information, and not the other way round.

In her own case, she said she had been steered by the Department of Education to the VECs, even though the VECs did not fall under FOI.

Ms O Kelly said she believes she only got the information she was looking for when she told the department she would do a story on the difficulties she was experiencing securing information.

Committee Chair Ciarán Lynch TD wondered if the NUJ had considered the idea of a registered user fee, which would attract a one-off annual cost.

Mr Dooley said it was something that could be looked at.

On the issue of "vexatious users", Mr Dooley said he felt that was an urban myth and there was legislation there to deal with such people.