Can the Data Protection Act be used to prevent public interest investigations?

For campaign groups carrying out public interest investigations, a recently issued claim in the High Court could have a chilling effect on the information a campaign group can collect and use.

Four people associated with the mining company BSG Resources Limited have issued a claim in the High Court requesting that their subject access requests are complied with, an order that their personal data is not processed and that their data is deleted (if necessary). The claim also seeks damages for distress.

The claim is against Global Witness, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns against and investigates corruption relating to the control of natural resources. Global Witness has been investigating corruption allegations surrounding BSG Resources Limited gaining mining rights to Guinean iron-ore in the Simandou Mountain range. BSG Resources Limited maintain that the allegations are without foundation.

Global Witness argue that the High Court claim is an attempt to stifle reporting on a major corruption scandal and is an illegitimate use of the Data Protection Act 1998. If the claim is successful it will have a serious detrimental effect on Global Witness’s ability to investigate and report on such issues.

This kind of data protection claim is unlikely to be brought against investigative journalists because the Data Protection Act 1998 provides an exemption from complying with certain provisions of the Act if the processing is for “journalistic purposes” (s.32). In the particulars of claim, the four claimants deny that Global Witness can rely on s.32.

If the Court agrees, it means non-governmental organisations and campaign groups that are involved in public interest investigations and reporting could find that their data protection obligations will have a stifling effect on how they can carry out investigations. It will be interesting to see how the Court grapples with these data protection rights and the ability for organisations to carry out such investigations.

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