Charities could be 'silenced' by data protection law, warns lawyer

20 Mar 2014 News

Campaigning charities that carry out investigations could find themselves falling foul of the Data Protection Act, charity lawyer Mairead O’Reilly has warned.

Mairead O'Reilly, senior associate, BWB

Campaigning charities that carry out investigations could find themselves falling foul of the Data Protection Act, charity lawyer Mairead O’Reilly has warned.

London-based environmental NGO, Global Witness, has been taken to court by BSG Resources (BSGR) Ltd accused of breaching the 1998 Data Protection Act after a number of press releases sent by the organisation claimed that BSGR used bribery to obtain mining rights in an iron ore reserve in Guinea, West Africa. BSGR denies the allegations.

BSGR claims that Global Witness has breached the Act in a number of ways including: not disclosing what information it holds; not informing the claimant that it holds personal information, and not obtaining the information fairly.

It is the first case of its kind and O’Reilly, a senior associate at Bates Wells Braithwaite, said: “If this claim succeeds it could have far-reaching implications for campaigning organisations which carry out investigations in the public interest. NGOs which seek to uncover and shine a light on unlawful or unethical behaviour by corporates could face claims by the officials of those corporates for breaching their data protection rights.”

BSGR filed a claim with the High Court in December 2013 and Global Witness submitted its response at the end of January 2014.

Simon Taylor, one of the founders of Global Witness, said: “The case filed by BSGR officials is a threat to freedom of speech, as it risks stripping journalists and NGOs of vital safeguards aimed at protecting sources and reporting freely on matters of public interest.”

He added: "They [BSGR] are effectively turning the Data Protection Act on its head. The Act was passed with the aim of protecting individuals against the prying state and corporations - not to chill discussion of matters of international importance."

Global Witness is intending to use section 32 of the Act, the “journalistic exemption”, as its defence. But O’Reilly says it is not clear if an organisation which engages in activities beyond journalism is eligible for this exemption.

She added: “Even if Global Witness succeeds in its defence, this case could encourage others to use the threat of data protection litigation to silence campaigners.”

 

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