Statement from Press Council of Ireland on proposed regulations on National Archives

Thursday, 16th April 2009
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The Press Council of Ireland has considered recent proposals by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner to issue draft regulations detailing requirements that, in the view of the Commissioner, should be met by an organization holding records that contain personal data and which are kept solely for the purpose of historical research or are covered by the National Archives Act 1986.

These draft regulations are of considerable significance for the press. This is because, since the passage of the National Archives Act 1986, the annual release of formerly confidential documents at the National Archives in Dublin has been a unique source of information, for journalists as well as for historians, about significant events in the social, economic, political and cultural history of our country.

The newspapers, in particular, by making details of these documents – and information about public figures contained in them – readily and inexpensively available to readers at large, have contributed in no small way to a wider and deeper understanding of our recent past and of the key events and individuals in modern Irish life.

One effect of the draft regulations, if approved, would be that information in any release of the archival records about named individuals who are still alive would not be disclosed, other than in an anonymised form, without the consent of the person concerned or unless otherwise permitted under the Data protection Acts.

The Council is strongly of the opinion that the proposed draft regulations would impose an altogether unwarranted set of restrictions on the freedom of the press to educate and inform the public about matters that are indisputably in the public interest. It believes this to be the case for the following reasons:

• The proposed restrictions could not have been anticipated by the legislature in 1986, and involve a fundamental amendment of the 1986 National Archives Act without recourse to the Oireachtas;

• The 1986 legislation already contains a proviso that Departments of State can, when deciding which documents are to be released to the National Archives under the Act, withhold certain documents by issuing a certificate to the effect that making the records concerned available for inspection “would or might cause distress or danger to living persons on the ground that they contain information about individuals, or would or might be likely to lead to an action for damages for defamation” .

• The proposed regulations would, in the light of the above, add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and associated costs to a system that has worked well and with increasing benefits to the public for more than two decades; and

• There is no evidence of any public or private concern about the operation of the National Archives Act 1986 in this regard.

In the light of the above, the Press Council of Ireland would like to suggest that either the proposed directive should be withdrawn for reconsideration, or that the government should pass the necessary legislation to exempt the National Archives of Ireland from the provisions of the data protection legislation or to ensure that Departments of State can satisfy the provisions of the data protection legislation in relation to documents released by them to the National Archives by exercising their powers under the National Archives Act.