PSNI prosecution of journalist defeated
PSNI prosecution of journalist defeated

A journalist has won legal recognition for her right to keep confidential her sources of information on the ‘Real IRA’ after the PSNI police had ordered her to surrender her documents.

Suzanne Breen, northern editor of the Sunday Tribune, had been told to hand over a mobile telephone, computer records and notes she had used to write articles on the dissident republican group.

The move was a thinly disguised effort to impose censorship following an upsurge in dissident activity earlier this year, including a ‘Real IRA’ gun attack on a British Army base in County Antrim in which two British soldiers were killed.

Ms Breen insisted that she must protect her sources and argued that she could be targeted for reprisal if she co-operated with the PSNI.

A number of British and Irish journalists gave evidence in court to back her stance. All of them were united in stressing that a journalist must honour any guarantee of confidentiality given to those who provide information.

Judge Burgess accepted the arguments put forward by Ms Breen, referring to the need to “balance fairly and objectively in respect of both public interests” in denying the PSNI’s demands.

His ruling has been widely welcomed by journalists, rights bodies and political parties.

Speaking outside court, Ms Breen said she “couldn’t be happier” with the findings. “Hopefully this will set a precedent. I hope no other journalist will find themselves hauled before the court.

“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 National Union of Journalists said: “The PSNI has failed on this occasion, despite tactics aimed at intimidating the media.”

The union’s general secretary Jeremy Dear said: “We now hope that the security forces will concentrate on tracking down criminals and those responsible for murder, rather than targeting journalists.”

Irish secretary Seamus 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.”

Amnesty International also greeted the court’s findings.

Patrick Corrigan, programme director for the North, said: “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 [the] decision, but remain concerned at this attempt by the PSNI to use secret evidence and anti-terrorism legislation against a journalist.”

SDLP Assembly member Alex Attwood said the judgment confirmed essential principles around the independence of journalists.

Alliance leader David Ford said: “This is a victory for the free press and for journalism as a profession.”

A PSNI spokesman said the police accepted the decision.

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