A journalist won the right today to withhold information about the Real IRA from police after a judge ruled that her life would be in danger if she was forced to hand it over.
Suzanne Breen, northern editor of the Dublin-published Sunday Tribune, had been subject to a legal bid by Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, who wanted information on the murders of two British soldiers in March.
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Northern Ireland-based Breen received the Real IRA’s claim of responsibility for shooting dead Sappers Patrick Azimkar, 21, from London, and Mark Quinsey, 23, from Birmingham, at the gates of Massereene Army Base in Antrim.
Belfast Recorder Tom Burgess acknowledged today that there was a great public interest in catching the killers but said the journalist’s right to life outweighs that.
Burgess said there was objective evidence that the terror group would target Ms Breen if the information was handed to the authorities, even as a result of a court order.
He rejected police argument that there was no immediate threat to the journalist, stating it was obvious that such a risk would only become real if the data was relinquished. The judge described the Real IRA as a “ruthless and murderous group of people” who would have no hesitation in targeting the reporter.
“The group has the capacity to carry out such threat and is willing to carry out such actions,” he said. But the judge also acknowledged that he had faced enormous difficulty in weighing the competing interests in the case.
As well as a mobile phone claim of responsibility, Breen conducted an interview with a member of the dissident terrorist group.
When she refused to hand over phone records and notes to officers investigating the security force murders, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) went to court seeking an order to compel her to do so.
But as well as highlighting the risk to herself, the editor claimed the entire profession of journalism would be undermined if the court ordered her to reveal confidential sources.
She told the judge that protection of sources was the lynchpin of investigative journalism and that is was the police’s job to investigate crime, not the media’s.
An overjoyed Miss Breen described her relief at the ruling outside the court.
The journalist, who had potentially been facing a term in prison, said the case against her should never have been taken.
“I am just delighted the judge came to the right decision,” she said.
“The past few months have obviously been very stressful, I think this action by police should never have been taken.
“I think it was a complete waste of time, resources and of taxpayers’ money and hopefully the police will learn from this decision and no other journalist will find themselves in the position that I found myself, potentially facing up to five years for doing nothing other than my job.”
The reporter was flanked by supporters and representatives from the National Union of Journalists, which backed her case, as she left Laganside Court in Belfast.
During the case, Breen’s legal team argued that, if the terrorists were willing to shoot fast food vendors, they would certainly not hesitate to go after someone who had revealed their identity to the police.
Judge Burgess today concurred with that claim.
“I can accept that there is objective evidence that you were involved with a group of people deemed a ‘legitimate target’ against whom this murderous organisation would all too quickly carry out their threats of violence and murder,” he said.
The National Union of Journalists said the ruling was “a landmark victory for journalism and civil liberties”.
Irish secretary SÃ©amus Dooley said: “No journalist should face the prospect of a prison sentence for doing their job in the public interest.
“Judge Burgess has recognised the central importance of the protection of journalistic sources and also accepted that a journalist who hands over confidential material could put their life at risk.”
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear added: “The PSNI has failed on this occasion, despite tactics aimed at intimidating the media.
“We now hope that the security forces will concentrate on tracking down criminals and those responsible for murder rather than targeting journalists.
“The use of anti-terror legislation to target journalists is a worrying international trend and this case is a welcome development in halting the erosion of civil liberties.”
NUJ president James Doherty said: “This is a victory not only for Suzanne, but for all journalists and the right to do our job free from fear or coercion. The Fourth Estate should never become a lapdog for a police state.”
Amnesty International Northern Ireland programme director Patrick Corrigan said: “This case had serious implications for the freedom of the press in the UK and Ireland.
“Freedom of the press is an essential element of the right to freedom of expression, recognised under international law, and in general includes the principle that journalists must be able to protect their sources.
“We welcome today’s decision but remain concerned at this attempt by the PSNI to use secret evidence and anti-terrorism legislation against a journalist.”