The Belfast-based Andersonstown News has claimed that the seizure by police of a reporter’s mobile phone is a serious threat to press freedom in Northern Ireland.
Although police have since returned the phone, concerns have been raised that the move undermined the ability of journalists to protect their sources.
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The phone was taken as part of a police investigation into the alleged abduction and beating of dissident Republican Bobby Tohill.
The attack on Tohill in Belfast city centre on Friday, 23 February, has thrown attempts to revive the Good Friday Agreement into doubt after claims that four IRA men were behind his abduction. A former Republican paramilitary, Tohill is understood to have been in dispute with mainstream Republicans.
The weekly Andersonstown News secured an exclusive interview with him just hours before he was attacked.
In it he said he believed “certain elements” of the IRA were conspiring to have him murdered. He said: “I could get whacked at any time.”
The subsequent attack on Tohill gained widespread TV and newspaper coverage, and the day after, the Andersonstown News obtained another exclusive interview with Tohill, who spoke from his hospital bed.
Reporter Sean Mag Uidhir was at a house in West Belfast which was being searched as part of the investigation into the attack on Tohill.
Andersonstown News managing editor MÃ¡rtÃn “‘Muilleoir said: “As part of the investigation they asked if they could have the numbers from his mobile phone – when he said no they said they were taking it anyway.”
“‘Muilleoir threatened to take legal action over the matter and said: “We will not tolerate this police state treatment of our newspaper.”
A Police Service of Northern Ireland spokesman said: “As part of a major investigation, police carried out a search of a house in the West Belfast area. During that search a mobile phone was recovered. The owner of the phone has yet to be established.”
“‘Muilleoir responded to this by saying: “The PSNI called the Andersonstown News to say they have our phone and wanted to give it back.
Either they have ESP powers or they are talking through their hats. That’s the sort of response you expect.”
Since then the phone has been returned to the Andersonstown News.
“‘Muilleoir said he would not be taking any further action.
NUJ Northern Ireland committee chairman Kevin Cooper said: “We have made protests about journalistic material being seized previously and have been given assurances that no such seizures would happen in future without the express clearance of the chief constable.
“The importance to a journalist of protecting your sources is obviously paramount.”
By Dominic Ponsford