Controversy recently arose in Belfast concerning the search and arrest operation of two award-winning journalist’s Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. The journalists are famously known for their recent documentary ‘No Stone Unturned’ which investigated the loyalist murders of six civilians in the ‘Loughinisland Massacre’. The documentary named suspects and exposed collusion between the British Army, the RUC and Loyalist Paramilitary gangs. The High Court in Belfast recently held its first hearing on a legal challenge taken by ‘Fine Point Films’, the employer-company of the journalist’s, which concerned the legality of the search warrant.
The men were arrested on suspicion of stealing confidential documents from the Police Ombudsman’s Office. A Police Spokesman claimed this theft ‘potentially puts lives at risk’. The men were released on bail after 14 hours of detainment and questioning. The search and arrest has been seen by many as an ‘intimidation tactic’ by the police to quieten the whistle-blowers. This arrest raises serious questions regarding Freedom of the Press and Investigative Journalism. The National Union of Journalists have publicly expressed their ‘grave concern’ over the arrests. In a public address prior to the hearing, the assistant secretary of the NUJ Séamus Dooley stated ‘The rights of journalists to expose things that the governments or police authorities do not want to hear is, like journalism itself, without borders’. Journalistic privilege is breached if the journalists are forced to reveal their sources.
Counsel for the company have claimed that during their detainment and questioning, no evidence was put to the men. The have also challenged the legality of the search warrant claiming that the police seized journalistic material well outside the scope of their investigation. Court proceedings were adjourned on the 7th of September. Counsel for the company, Barry MacDonald QC suggested the appointment of a retired judge or an independent lawyer to examine everything seized and to return everything not covered by the warrant immediately. The court are considering proposals for an independent assessment of the materials seized from the company. The police were ordered not to examine any of the documents and computer equipment until the court reached a decision.
By Aoibhinn Gilmartin – Law Writer