A judicial review into police raids on the homes of two North Ireland investigative journalists began today, almost a year after the pair were first arrested.
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey (pictured) appeared at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast for the start of the review into the legitimacy of the search warrants used by police to search their homes and offices.
The journalists produced the 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned on the 1994 Loughinisland Massacre, revealing names of alleged suspects for the first time.
Police arrested the pair in August last year over alleged theft of confidential material in connection with the film.
A police press release issued at the time said the investigation was triggered when the Ombudsman reported the theft to police, but the Ombudsman’s office has since said it “did not make a complaint of theft” to police.
The pair have yet to be charged but had their pre-charge bail extended by six months in March this year.
Press Association reported that Barry MacDonald QC, representing the journalists, told the court today that police “seized millions of documents” – including some not related to the Loughinisland story.
He also argued there was no risk to suspects named in the documentary, as their names had been in the public domain for years, adding that the journalists approached suspects offering them a chance to respond.
Speaking about the raids, MacDonald said: “This was the kind of operation more associated with a police state than with a liberal democracy.”
Conservative MP and former Brexit secretary David Davis said the case was “a troubling challenge to press freedom and civil liberties in Northern Ireland”.
He continued: “The police simply cannot arrest journalists for publishing information they don’t like. Serious questions need to be asked as to how this was allowed to happen, and why the Police Service Northern Ireland have a continued involvement in the case despite a clear conflict of interest.
“That is why I will be attending the judicial review in support of Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney.”
In a statement ahead of the review today, National Union of Journalists General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said the “legal threats” faced by the pair could not “go unchallenged”.
She said: “Now more than ever we need critical, bold, outstanding investigative journalism that is in the public interest. Democracy is in danger without it.
“Journalists should never be targeted for simply doing their jobs and for shining a light on human rights abuses in Northern Ireland and crucially the state’s complicity in the killing of civilians.
“The continuing legal threats faced by Trevor and Barry and the way the search warrants were granted and used can not go unchallenged.
She added that the case had “huge ramifications for the whole media industry” and that the journalists’ union would “do everything it can to support those who fight for the truth”.
Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland programme director said: “This case is crucial to the freedom of the press in the UK.
“Journalists must be free to investigate issues of public concern without fear of arrest and imprisonment. When armed police are raiding the homes of journalists, while helping killers evade justice, there is something deeply wrong.”
NUJ members held protests outside the court in Belfast today.
The judicial review is expected to last three days.
Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire