Journo stands up to the police state
Journo stands up to the police state

Belfast journalist Suzanne Breen and her newspaper, the Sunday Tribune, have received widespread support for their refusal to comply with demands by the PSNI police to identify journalistic sources within the ‘Real IRA’.

Breen, the newspaper’s northern editor, is resisting efforts by the PSNI to force her to hand over phones, computers, and other material relating to stories she wrote on the Real IRA as part of a broad crackdown on dissident republicanism.

Ms Breeen said: “There are two issues at stake here. The first is the necessity of any journalist not to reveal their sources and I want to stress that I will not reveal my sources. The second issue is about my right to life and my personal safety. If I handed over any material I would be putting myself in danger. The Real IRA has already said that anyone dealing with the police vis a vis republicans are guilty of treachery.

“It is disgraceful that in the so-called new Northern Ireland a journalist could face imprisonment or have their safety compromised over the protection of sources.”

She said the judge’s decision to hear the PSNI’s case in private “tied her hands behind her back” and her defence team.

Belfast recorder Tom Burgess said afterwards that he was “provisionally minded” to force Breen to hand over information she had gathered about the Real IRA attack on the British Army’s Massareene base in March, in which two British soldiers died.

Breen received a call from someone in the organisation claiming responsibility for the shootings.

As well as phone records relating to the claim, the police also want information connected to the interview the journalist carried out with a senior Real IRA representative. In it, the group claimed responsibility for the execution of Denis Donaldson, the senior Sinn Féin official and self-confessed MI5 informer.

Donaldson was shot dead more than three years ago at a County Donegal hideaway where he had set up home after being unmasked.

The journalist’s lawyer, Peter Girvan, asked how he was supposed to offer up a legal defence if he could not see the police case against his client. “The difficulty my client is faced with is she has a vacuum -- there is no information for her to respond to.”

The judge said his determination of the PSNI evidence, which he heard last Friday, would be placed in a sealed envelope and could be made available to a court of appeal if the case ever reached that stage.

“I’m not trying to hide behind anything,” the judge insisted. “I’m happy for anybody to look at the reasons why I’ve come to the decision I have.”

A mother of one, Ms Breen potentially faces up to five years’ imprisonment for not complying with the PSNI’s demands. She was told she had a week to prepare her defence to the police application. The case will be heard on 29 May.

Speaking outside the court, Ms Breen said she was in the “impossible situation” of trying to mount a defence, when she did not know the nature of the police’s evidence to the court.

“What are the police frightened of?” she asked.

“This case is making it very hard for myself and the Sunday Tribune to defend ourselves.”

Ms Breen emphasised her arguments would be based on the protection of sources, a journalist’s right to confidentiality, and the risk to her life were she to comply with the police demands.

“If the police get what they want journalists will not be able to do their jobs. This case potentially could close down journalism,” she claimed.


The National Union of Journalists has said the authorities must recognise the special nature of journalistic material and respect Breen’s right to maintain the confidentiality of her sources.

Seamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the NUJ, attended court in a show of support for Ms Breen.

He claimed there was a “Kafkaesque” element to the case where she was being asked to defend herself against points made in private. “She faces a threat to her life with her hands tied completely behind her back.”

He said if the case were lost it would set a precedent where journalists could not protect their sources, something that “would be bad for society”.

Channel 4 News’ chief correspondent, Alex Thomson, who was threatened with legal action for not divulging sources to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, said he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Sunday Tribune.

“The danger in such approaches by the state is that the freedom of people to come forward and divulge information to reporters on the condition of anonymity is damaged,” he said. “It might be the Real IRA this week - but, next week, it could be a nurse, school teacher or soldier disclosing grave wrong-doing at real risk to their career or safety.”

The Sunday Times’ Liam Clarke described the PSNI’s action as “a cruel, expensive farce”. He said if Breen complied, her life would be in danger and she would have to leave Ireland.

Clarke said of Orde: “If Hugh Orde wants to go to his new job as president of the Association of Chief Constables as the man who rolled back press freedom and jailed the mother of a young child for refusing to put her life on the line and ruin her career for him, then he is welcome to tilt at the windmill. But I doubt the courts will join him.”

The PSNI letter demanding Breen’s material came from Detective Chief Supt Derek Williamson, who is leading the Massereene investigation. Sunday World journalist Hugh Jordan said: “He seems to have got the wrong end of the stick. Suzanne Breen isn’t his enemy. She was simply doing her job. Derek Williamson should wise-up.”

According to the editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Martin Lindsay, “Ms Breen is upholding a valued journalistic tradition, where sources of information are regarded as sacrosanct, and deserves support for her stance.”

The Daily Mirror’s Ireland editor Gerry Millar said: “If this case is lost, it will endanger every journalist seeking to do their job. Society will lose out.”

Last week, Breen wrote of how the UDA had boasted to her in 1993 about murdering Catholic father-of-six, Mickey Edwards, as he slept - yet she had never been contacted by the PSNI over that.

Edwards’ young children had run into the bedroom, begging him not to die. Last week, Edwards’s son Michael contacted the Sunday Tribune to support Breen.

In a moving statement, he said that even if Breen knew the names of those who murdered his father, he didn’t expect her to reveal them: “I commend the bravery of Suzanne Breen to interview loyalists at a time when they made no distinction between killing Catholic men or women. It’s dangerous enough reporting in the North without unnecessary police actions.”

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