Editors at the Belfast-based Sunday World newspaper believe known organised crime figures and paramilitary leaders are abusing the Editors’ Code of Practice to stop their reporting.
The newspaper has said it is facing an abuse of the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s complaints process on top of threats, including a planned under-car booby trap, from loyalist paramilitary organisations.
In the newspaper’s annual compliance statement for 2019, required of IPSO members, Northern Ireland editor Richard Sullivan said it contacted the regulator because of an “unusual set of circumstances”.
“We have received a number of complaints issued on behalf of known organised crime figures and paramilitary leaders,” he wrote.
“Our concern is they are using the Code to keep us quiet, to stop us writing about them and investigating their activities.
“It is a situation that is unique to the North of Ireland, these are individuals we have been writing about for some years and we feel this is an abuse of the Code.”
Sullivan said the issue had been “compounded” by the threats against the paper’s journalists. These continued during the Covid-19 lockdown, partly leading to the “Stand Up for Journalism” campaign launched by the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and News Letter.
Representatives from the Sunday World met up with IPSO in January to explain what was happening and give context to the complaints it was receiving.
Sullivan said the paper received “extremely constructive advice on how to confront the situation” in return.
The newspaper has also told IPSO of a blanket threat and a specific threat to a staff member, Sullivan said.
But a training session set up for Sunday World, Sunday Life and Belfast Telegraph journalists to be held in Belfast was postponed by the pandemic. Sullivan said he was “keen” for this to be rearranged.
An IPSO spokesperson told Press Gazette: “IPSO has a strong commitment to freedom of expression and we support high standards of journalism by upholding the Editors’ Code of Practice.
“We are mindful that the Sunday World, and indeed other reporters in Northern Ireland, are operating in a challenging set of circumstances.
“We want them to be able carry out their important work freely and safely, and as regulator, will support them to do so. We will consider all complaints independently and robustly.
“We are pleased the Sunday World have taken up IPSO training, which is available to all our regulated publishers, and we look forward to delivering it shortly.”
Sullivan said editorial staff at the Sunday World “are expected to adhere to the highest standards of responsible journalism” and verify stories through fact checking and by cultivating reliable sources.
Two IPSO complaints were upheld against Sunday World articles published in 2019, although one of these decisions came after the New Year.
Journalists at the likes of Sunday Life and Irish News also work under threats of violence from both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups.
Sullivan said Sunday World’s journalists carry out their work “at no little risk”. He told Press Gazette earlier this year that he has a number of security features at his home, including bullet-proof windows, courtesy of publisher Independent News and Media.
The Sunday World office has been firebombed and had a bomb planted there.
Its crime reporter Martin O’Hagan was shot dead in 2001, the only journalist killed on British soil for nearly 20 years until Lyra McKee was also shot dead in Derry last year.