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Inside File: Freedom of information? Well, not quite

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

The uproar over the banning of the magazine "In Dublin" is only the latest reminder of the fact that we live in a time when all manner of information flows freely, but some of it more freely than much of the rest.

"Newspapers encounter a lot of legal problems in trying to get the truth into the public domain," wrote Damien Kiberd in the Dublin-based Sunday Business Post recently. That’s an understatement. The libel laws in Ireland and Britain are enough to turn a journalist covering even a dog show into a raving insomniac. A little after Kiberd penned his complaint, in a column about Fianna Fáil and funny money, The Sunday Tribune ran a story headlined "Freedom of Information act keeps door shut." The story’s first paragraph read thus: "The Freedom of Information Act still cannot be used to get data from a significant number of public bodies including the Gárdá Siochána, universities, Bord Fáilte, commercial state-sponsored bodies and VECs (vocational educational committees which run vocational schools).

The report went on to state that the Irish Freedom of Information Act, born in 1998, provided no automatic public entitlement to information from newly established bodies. Neither did it cover most information generated before April 21, 1997.

Meanwhile, the satirical magazine Phoenix, ever the dirt digger, was informed a while back that the FOIA did not apply to either house of the Irish parliament, its committees and documents. "In other words, Phoenix concluded, "the legislators who drew up the legislation are, conveniently, not covered by it."

So, free isn’t really that free at all. Still, official Ireland is still probably just a wee bit looser with sensitive information than Britain, a country notorious for secrecy and the clamping down on efforts to uncover any information related, legitimately or tenuously, to national security. The British government also recently unfurled freedom of information legislation and then promptly had a canary after a list of alleged MI6 agents was tossed about all over the internet.

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Here in the U.S., the birthplace of freedom of information, much can be squeezed from the clenched fist of officialdom but not quite as much as many would like to believe. Just ask Francie Broderick, wife of deportee Matt Morrison. Broderick filed under the U.S. FOIA from the family home in St. Louis for information, not on her husband and in his case, but herself. It turned out there were indeed FBI files on her. Somewhere along the way the files eventually turned over by the Bureau managed to gather a lot of big thick ink lines. "All Information Contained Herein Is Unclassified Except Where Shown Otherwise," an official stamp on each document provided to Broderick stated. Between the considerable "Shown Otherwise" parts, Francie was able to learn that her full name was Mary Frances, that she was a 5′ 4" white female with blue eyes and was "believed to be married to Matthew Martin Morrison." There followed a physical description of Morrison, one which was hardly riddled with secrets as far as his curious spouse was concerned. All in all, the Freedom of Information Act is not quite what it first seems. Perhaps it should be sued under trade description laws.

Ed in the dock

Readers keeping track of Sunday Tribune journalist Ed Moloney’s adventures in the Northern Ireland justice system will be interested to know that Moloney is scheduled for a court appearance at the beginning of next week. Moloney is facing potentially serious legal action by authorities under British secrecy laws over his refusal to hand over his notes from an interview, conducted nine years ago, with a man recently arrested in connection with the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. Moloney contends that the information was given to him in confidence and that as a journalist he must protect his sources. He’s willing to risk possible prison time and confiscation of property and assets in order to protect those sources. The Tribune’s Northern Editor further alleges that the arrest of William Stobie is more than anything else an attempt to place the Finucane case under the thumb of stringent sub judice laws until the Patten Commission into the RUC packs its bags and departs the North. Such opinions are hardly likely to win Moloney any favors from the wee North’s 5-O. Meanwhile, the Moloney case is beginning to attract expressions of concern from human rights groups on this side of the Atlantic. Of course Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down a president partly on the basis of information supplied by a confidential source. The identity of that source, "Deepthroat," remains a mystery and Bob and Carl seem to be doing quite nicely, their assets still intact and all despite the fact that the identity of DT is yet unknown, even to "IF." Yes indeed, the wee North is a very different place for the working hack. Bob and Carl should be forever thankful that they were allowed practice their trade in such a gentle, considerate and free-thinking place – notwithstanding the Francie Broderick matter – as the District of Columbia.

Dessie’s visit

Before Joe Doherty there was Dessie Mackin. Mackin fled Northern Ireland back in the really bad old days and became the central figure in a U.S. extradition case that went a long way to persuading both the Thatcher government and Reagan Administration that U.S. extradition laws needed a sharp dose of the special relationship up the transom. In these more politically emollient times, Mackin wings his way to and fro across the Atlantic in comparative ease. As treasurer of Sinn Féin, keeping in touch with supporters in Mad King George’s former colonies is an essential part of the job description. Mackin dropped in on "IF" last week, not to check how thick IF"s wallet is – on that score he would have been sorely disappointed – but to let it be known that he was in New York preparing the way, John the Baptist-like, for party president Gerry Adams and other SF notables who are expected to make landfall on these shores in October for the annual fall fundraising season, a time of year when SF hopes that dollar bills are as thick on the ground as leaves on a New England forest floor. Before "IF" could say "you can buy the coffee," Mackin was gone. It’s hard to keep up with a man who once had Maggie and Ronnie hot on his trail.

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