The PSNI police have brought an Irish journalist to court under special anti-terrorist legislation in a move seen as further evidence of a return to traditional repressive state policies against republicanism.

Suzanne Breen, the northern editor of the Sunday Tribune newspaper, has been ordered to give up phones, computers, discs, notes and other material linked to her research on the armed republican group, the ‘Real IRA’.

The Tribune, a major Irish Sunday paper, surprised the political establishment in recent weeks by publishing an interview with members of the group as well as a report by Ms Breen on British efforts to recruit informers in Ireland.

Officers gave the veteran northern journalist seven days to comply after visiting her Belfast home last week, but she has refused to co-operate, insisting she has to protect her sources.

Ms Breen said: “It is not the job of journalists to be detectives. We will be upholding the journalistic code of ethics, which includes the protecting of sources.”

The PSNI today began proceedings seeking a High Court order compelling her to hand over the materials. It sought for the case to be held behind closed doors and made a contentious application for a preliminary hearing to be held in the absence of Ms Breen’s legal team.

Following the Real IRA’s deadly attack on the British Army’s Massareene base in County Antrim in March, the British Crown forces launched a renewed campaign against the “dissidents”, arresting prominent figures such as Colin Duffy and subjecting them to detentions and interrogations of unprecedented duration.

Meanwhile, the North’s political scene has also witnessed a backlash, with Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister describing rival republicans as “traitors”. He also castigated people he described as “dissident journalists” after he and First Minister Peter Robinson were forced to field awkward questions on the salaries and expenses being funneled by the British exchequer to the North’s political leaders and their families.

Self-censorship and open hostility within the mainstream media towards republicanism has been a long-standing hallmark of the conflict in the North, but the PSNI’s action against the Ms Breen marks a significant escalation.

The PSNI have said they are seeking the identities of anyone claiming to represent, or be a member of, the Real IRA.

The National Union of Journalists has come out in support of Ms Breen. NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: “If the police and security services believe they can force journalists to become part of intelligence-gathering operations the very future of independent journalism will be put at risk.

“An investigative journalist’s job is to expose the truth.

“They can only do that if their sources know they can speak openly and in confidence.”

Professor Brice Dickson from Queen’s University law school said police were proposing a “perversion” of the Terrorism Act.

“It’s essential to the running of a healthy democracy that investigative journalists be allowed to go about their perfectly lawful activities without being impeded or constrained by police,” he said.

Human rights organisation the Committee on the Administration of Justice said it was vital police did not use the Terrorism Act “left, right and centre”.

“We should be moving towards a more normal society in Northern Ireland where democracy operates and journalists can carry out their job without fear of police action,” it said.

British/Irish Rights Watch director Jane Winter has written to PSNI chief Hugh Orde to complain.

“Any journalist who allows themselves to be coerced into revealing a source does the whole profession a disservice because they create the public perception that journalists as a whole can’t be trusted to maintain confidentiality,” she said.

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