International press freedom group concerned about Data Protection Bill
The international press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has written to Minister of Energy, Science and Technology Dr Andrew Wheatley to express concerns about what it says is the chilling effect that the proposed Data Protection Act could have on journalism. Wheatley chairs the joint select committee of Parliament now examining the bill.
RSF, which produces the annual World Press Freedom Index, has suggested that Parliament amend the bill to include a blanket exemption for journalists. The group's suggestion echoes similar proposals made by the Press Association of Jamaica and the Media Association Jamaica Limited.
According to RSF, it did not believe that the bill made a sufficient distinction between gathering data for journalistic activities and gathering data for regular commercial purposes. The group added that the bill's negative impact on journalism could outweigh the advantages that the legislation was supposed to provide.
In her letter to Wheatley, RSF's executive director for North America Margaux Ewen said, "A clear blanket exemption for journalists should be provided instead of a handful of provisions from which journalists are exempt." Ewen argued that without a blanket exemption, the proposed legislation was "potentially threatening" for journalists and media outlets.
"It says it aims to protect 'sensitive personal data,' including 'political opinions, philosophical beliefs, religious beliefs or other beliefs of a similar nature,' all of which are examples of subjects journalists focus their reporting on," the RSF head pointed out.
"How can journalists report on matters of public interest and hold those in power accountable under such a law?" asked Ewen.
She said that RSF was also concerned about the power given to the information commissioner to enforce, exempt, and penalise data controllers, which would include journalists.
According to Ewen, while RSF appreciates the desire to make the office of the information commissioner an independent one, the lack of checks and balances in how the office would operate led to concerns "that the commissioner has too much power to decide how this legislation would apply to journalists".