Murder no longer 'an idle threat' for NI journalists

 The killing of a reporter, the first in 30 years of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, was a reality the Province’s journalists had hoped never to face.

The Sunday World’s Martin O’Hagan died in a seven-bullet, drive-by shooting by Loyalist paramilitary organisation the Red Hand Defenders because of his exposŽs of their criminal activities.

"It shows these people are prepared to go all the way. They are not idle threats any more," said Martin Lindsay, who, as the editor of another Belfast paper, Sunday Life, knows the constant danger his staff are in.

"We have had threats ourselves in the past against this newspaper and against individuals."

One journalist got into the car of a Loyalist contact, explained Lindsay, "and the guy drew a gun and said: ‘This is not about a story – this is me telling you this is your last warning.’"

Lindsay believes taking extra precautions probably applies more to Sunday newspapers "because we tend to get under the skin of these people, exposing them, be they involved in drugs or in terrorism, and we do come in contact with a lot of low life.

"It is a very, very stark reminder to all of us that we do have to be careful."

But O’Hagan had taken the precaution of varying his route from the pub last Friday night – one of the safety measures the Royal Ulster Constabulary advises journalists to take – and it didn’t save him.

He had once before been threatened with death by Loyalists, who left a bomb at the Sunday World offices in 1993. On another occasion he was kidnapped by the IRA. Lindsay thinks one of the problems for O’Hagan was that he lived in a very small town "where people knew who he was and who he worked for and most importantly where he lived. It was instrumental in these thugs being able to target him."

This week Lindsay specifically asked that someone living in Belfast check out a story in the area where O’Hagan lived because the district reporter’s byline would have left him open to danger.

Another news organisation in the city admitted to a sharper focus on security but, feeling the situation was so sensitive, preferred not to be identified in Press Gazette.

North Belfast was very risky for its reporters and photographers in the run-up to O’Hagan’s murder, said one of its senior journalists, adding: "It’s been a terrible few days. The whole thing has shaken everybody up. The RUC’s advice is to stay out of certain parts of town, which you just can’t do. A newspaper office cannot be a secure complex – we have to have the public coming to us."

Sunday World editor Colm McGinty said security was stepped up for all his journalists after his office in Northern Ireland was petrol bombed and the murder of reporter Veronica Guerin by Dublin drug barons.

McGinty said: "No one ever goes anywhere alone and they keep in contact all the time." He talked to his staff after O’Hagan’s funeral and found them angry. His northern editor, Jim McDowell, spoke to each one as they came to work the day after.

"It was very shocking for them as they came in to see an empty desk. But we have to get down to business now and hunt out who killed Martin," said McGinty.

By Jean Morgan

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