Police in Northern Ireland are failing to share enough details about immediate threats to journalists from terrorists and criminals to help them take extra safety precautions, editors have said.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland warns journalists when members of a paramilitary group or criminal gang – often one and the same – have issued a threat against them, but will not say where it originates from.
It is understood police withhold this information to protect their own intelligence sources.
But journalists based in Belfast have told Press Gazette this policy means they are unable to avoid areas of the city associated with certain groups, putting them at risk of attack.
Some reporters have been forced to find out more detail about threats made against them through their own underworld sources.
The concerns are set against heightened tensions in the region, coming less than a year after journalist Lyra Mckee was shot dead while covering rioting in the Creggan area of Derry.
Sunday Life editor Martin Breen told Press Gazette: “It’s 21 years on from the Good Friday Agreement and paramilitary organisations are still threatening journalists from both the Republican and the Loyalist side.
“In the last number of years a lot of journalists have been warned by police that they are under threat and those threats have originated from a number of terrorist groups.”
Police notices are known as a PM1 and will sometimes describe a threat as having been made by “paramilitary elements” or “criminal elements”, which also covers terror groups.
“But they will usually not give you more evidence than that,” said Breen.
“The police are not providing enough information for the journalists to take adequate precautions to protect themselves from putting their lives at great risk. Especially when you’re told you are at risk of imminent attack and you don’t know how much information they have on you.”
Disruption to work and family life
Breen said he had met with police officers about threats, including contacting the chief constable of the PSNI in an attempt to find out more information about a threat issued against a reporter who was told about it by police late on a Sunday evening.
“It didn’t say where the threat originated from,” said Breen. “[The reporter] couldn’t take any precautions like avoiding certain areas where these people might be based. The police wouldn’t in that case, for intelligence reasons, divulge either the area or the group.”
He said the journalist was later able to identify it as “criminal groups with dissident Republican links”, but only through their own contacts which he said took several days.
“It disrupted their work and family life. They didn’t know what they could do or where they could go. Nobody wants to be walking around unsure of what’s going to happen to them.”
Breen argues that sharing the area of the city where the threat is coming from would not identify an intelligence source, but would help journalists to take added steps to stay safe.
Paramilitary groups operate in known “command” or “brigade” areas around Belfast. The Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and the New IRA continue to recruit and engage in criminal activities in the area.
The New IRA claimed responsibility for killing McKee in April last year. She was the first journalist killed on British soil in nearly 20 years after Sunday World journalist Martin O’Hagan was shot dead as he walked home from an evening out with his wife in Lurgan, Co Armagh, in September 2001.
O’Hagan was the first journalist killed by paramilitaries since the Northern Ireland Troubles erupted in 1969 and was murdered after exposing the actions of Loyalist gangsters. His killers have so far evaded justice.
Less experienced journalists ‘at huge risk’
Breen said police had warned his journalists of threats made by paramilitary groups following articles exposing their criminal activities and reports that included photographs of prominent members who would prefer anonymity.
Sunday Life chief reporter Ciaran Barnes told Press Gazette he had received three separate death threats over the space of 15 months, with police calling at his house to inform him each time.
The first, in October 2017, forced the 40-year-old to move house after his address and car registration was shared online.
In April 2018 police warned him of an attack by the UDA and in January last year he was told he was at risk from “criminal elements” within the community.
“The problem I have is the police just give you the threat,” said Barnes. “The constables don’t have a clue where the threats are emanating from. [The PM1 notice] doesn’t say who’s behind the threat.”
He added: “If I know who is behind the threats I’m able to avoid certain areas. [Otherwise] you have to use your own criminal and police sources to try and find out who is behind it.”
But Barnes said a young journalist without the experience and contacts he has after 20 years in the industry, including ten years at Sunday Life, would have been left in the dark.
“It would put them at huge risk,” he said. “They wouldn’t know how to protect themselves.”
‘I have bullet-proof windows and doors’
Barnes said his house is “like Fort Knox” to protect him from would-be attackers, a necessary precaution for a journalist exposing Northern Ireland’s terror groups and criminal underworld.
“I have bullet-proof windows and doors. I have panic buttons that are linked to local police stations and motion-activated security lights, CCTV, all manner of devices to keep me safe.”
The security is paid for by Sunday Life and Sunday World publisher Independent News and Media, which takes threats against journalists seriously since O’Hagan’s death – “I can’t fault them,” said Barnes.
Explaining the sacrifices he has made to continue his work as a journalist, Barnes said he avoids going into the centre of Belfast and cannot go out at night in the city for drinks with friends.
“You run the risk of someone seeing you and starting an argument with you,” he said. Even when he does venture out to a pub or cafe, Barnes said he sits facing the door “so I can see who is coming in and out”.
Threats ‘always at the back of your mind’
Ten years ago Sunday World editor Jim McDowell was badly beaten by a Loyalist mob while visiting a busy Christmas market in Belfast. The attack was a reminder that journalists continue to face the very real risk of serious violence as a direct result of their work in Northern Ireland.
“It’s always at the back of your mind that that can happen,” said Barnes of the attack on McDowell.
He said people “don’t realise the unseen impact it has on your life”.
“There isn’t a day goes by where it doesn’t affect you. You stop and you think about it. There’s always the chance someone might go to the extreme and shoot me.”
But he said he continued to report because he feels he is “making a difference to people’s lives” as a result.
“Particularly in Northern Ireland when people approach you who are under threat from paramilitary organisations – they are going to journalists as a last resort,” said Barnes.
“Eventually they speak, even though they know they are putting themselves at great risk. I feel a responsibility to give a voice to these people to try and help them. I do my best to try and stand up to [paramilitary groups] and I try and encourage other people to stand up to them.”
Richard Sullivan, Northern Ireland editor at Sunday World, said the police policy of not revealing the origin of threats made against journalists is “frustrating” and “quite unsettling”.
“You have to make your own inquiries and investigations with your sources to find out where it’s coming from. That’s not right,” he told Press Gazette.
Sullivan has been a journalist for 32 years, including 22 at Sunday World. He confirmed journalists at his paper had also received PM1 notices.
‘No-one knows more about protecting sources’
“I have been doing this for 30 years – even now when you get them they are horrible,” he said, adding that they were “very difficult” for inexperienced journalists who didn’t have their own contacts to find out more.
Sullivan said police should offer “at least an indication as to where [a threat is] coming from”.
“Nobody knows anything more about protecting sources than we do, but I don’t think it betrays a source to say we believe this is coming from south Belfast UDA or east Belfast UVF.
“I don’t think that would entail a betrayal of a source by the police. Who am I going to broadcast that to? I’m not going to write about it. It’s for my personal security. My company needs to know and my family needs to know.”
He added: “It isn’t pleasant getting these things, but it’s even more unpleasant because you can’t explain to your loved ones at least where it is coming from. It doesn’t just affect my movements, it affects my family’s movements – where can I take my kids?”
Sullivan said he too has a number of security features at his home, including bullet-proof windows, courtesy of publisher INM.
He said: “I don’t believe they are going to shoot me as I walk into work, but there’s always the potential.”
A PSNI spokesperson said: “While we do not discuss the security of individuals, if we receive information that a person’s life may be at risk we will inform them accordingly.
“In doing so we will seek to provide as much relevant information as possible and also take steps to ensure the safety of the subject. We never ignore anything which may put an individual at risk.
“The confidence of the communities we serve is at the forefront of our minds. Keeping people safe will always be our priority and how safe people feel is an important factor in their quality of life.
“I want to reassure the public that police officers and staff are working around the clock to prevent crime and harm to individuals, protect the vulnerable and detect those who commit crime and bring them before the courts.”
Picture: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton