Reporter investigated over police leak is released without charge

A journalist and a detective sergeant questioned by Irish police over the leak of an official report highly critical of the force have been released without charge.

Sunday Tribune crime correspondent Mick McCaffrey was named in the Dail as the reporter being questioned by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI).

Irish police said a file on the case was being prepared and would be forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mr McCaffrey was working for the Dublin-based Evening Herald in August last year when the newspaper ran a story claiming to disclose excerpts from a then unpublished report into a homeless drug addict's false confessions to a double murder.

A Commission of Investigation found that detectives in the case had inappropriately questioned Dean Lyons, and that records of the interviews were potentially misleading and may have led to a miscarriage of justice.

Lyons was charged with the murder of Sylvia Sheils, 59, and Mary Callinan, 61, who were stabbed to death in their beds in March 1997 in sheltered accommodation run by St Brendan's psychiatric hospital in Grangegorman, Dublin.

The charges were dropped seven months later. Lyons later died in England.

Irish police issued an unprecedented apology to his family for charging an innocent man.

It is understood that police interviewed Mr McCaffrey a number of times before his arrest, which has sparked fresh controversy over planned privacy laws which opponents say will frustrate investigative journalism.

At the time of the Evening Herald report, the Department of Justice issued a warning to journalists that they could be breaking the law if they disclosed the contents of a Commission of Investigation's inquiry.

Under the legislation, an individual could be jailed for up to five years or fined up to 300,000 euros for disclosing the contents of an investigation before official publication of its final report.

McCaffrey and the detective sergeant were questioned under section four of the Criminal Justice Act and could have been held for up to 24 hours.

Fine Gael's Jim O'Keeffe demanded Justice Minister Michael McDowell should make a statement on the arrests during a debate in the Dail.

The opposition party's justice spokesman linked the police investigation to government-proposed privacy laws which critics believe will undermine the media's ability to expose information in the public interest.

"I want to know if that (Privacy) Bill is going to be withdrawn, a Bill that is designed to stifle investigative journalism, and I also want to know whether the master ministerial leaker himself, Michael McDowell, will make a statement in relation to the arrest of this journalist who apparently got a leaked report and published it in his paper," O'Keeffe said.

In the report into the Lyons case, the commission's sole member, George Birmingham SC, described the decision of the original investigation team to recommend a murder charge and an additional charge related to the second death as "difficult to understand and even harder to justify".

The NUJ said Mr McCaffrey's arrest was a disturbing development.

"It strikes me as being extremely heavy handed," said Seamus Dooley, the union's Irish secretary.

"I do understand that the George Birmingham report contained inconvenient truths and publication of inconvenient truths is the function of journalism and they are always embarrassing to politicians.

"It's hard not to believe that the purpose of this legislation and the purpose of the arrest, and the manner in which it was carried out, is to send a signal to journalists, particularly coming up to an election, that 'By God, we'll leak, by God we'll spin but we'll do it our way'."

Dooley said it was ironic that a journalist was facing five years in prison at a time when the government was attempting to manipulate the news agenda ahead of the general election, expected in May.

"Mr McDowell and his colleagues do not have a problem with leaks – that's very obvious. But what they want is selective leaking, leaking on their terms," he said.

"What this is about is an attempt to reign in an investigative journalist."

The Irish government has admitted its justice department was behind the arrest of McCaffrey.

Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Michael McDowell insisted
he had "no hand, act or part" in the controversy which has sparked a
national debate about press freedom.

McDowell told the Irish parliament his secretary general sparked the garda inquiry that led to the arrests.

"I'm saying to this house again that the secretary general of my
department became aware that it was proposed to publish an article in a
newspaper based on a leaked report," he said.

"The newspaper itself was warned that it was a criminal offence to
publish the material before it (the department) published the material
and the secretary general in those circumstances decided himself when
the publication took place that he would make a complaint to members of
an Garda Siochana."

And in a further twist to the events, Mr McDowell heaped praise on
the reporter at the centre of the garda investigation sparked by the
minister's own Justice Department.

"I've met Mick McCaffrey – who I like a lot, I think he's a very
decent fellow and is a relative of an officer in my department – on a
number of occasions," he said.

"I had no idea on that occasion that this was going to happen to him
and I like him very, very much as an individual. He's a decent
hard-working journalist.

"I have no malice whosoever against him and I can assure this house
that what I said here yesterday and what I've repeated here today is
the total unvarnished truth."

McDowell has issued a 1,000-word statement, insisting
he never played any part in the case that led to the reporter's arrest.

He confirmed he was told in advance by his secretary general that he
was going to make a complaint to one of the most senior police officers
in the Republic.

"He advised me by phone of his intention to do this. I was on a
family holiday at the time. He made it clear to me that his decision
was not being submitted to me for any form of approval or consent," the
minister said.

"He further advised that it would be both unnecessary and inappropriate for me to be involved in any way in this decision.

"The Secretary General contacted a Deputy Commissioner of An Garda Siochana to make the complaint verbally.

"This was followed up by a formal letter issued on August 14, 2006
setting out the situation insofar as it was known to the Department."

In a firm rebuttal of many claims levelled against the minister
during the affair, McDowell insisted he had no direct or indirect
role and bore no ill will against either the reporter or the detective
sergeant who were detained and interrogated.

"I also wish to add that I stand over all of the actions and
decisions made by the officials of my Department in this matter," he
said.

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