Police bid to “gag”two journalists failed say lawyers

Posted By: March 02, 2019

Rebecca Black.Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, March 2, 2019

AN attempt by police to gag two prominent Belfast journalists has failed, according to their lawyers.

Award-winning reporters Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey presented themselves to Musgrave police station for scheduled questioning yesterday.

They were interviewed separately by police.

Their lawyers said an attempt was made to stop the men from speaking publicly about the case.

Six months ago, the pair were arrested by police from Durham Constabulary, aided by PSNI officers, over the alleged theft of confidential material from the offices of the Police Ombudsman.

The material relates to a police investigation into the loyalist murder of six men in Loughinisland in 1994.

A PSNI press release issued at the time of the journalists’ arrests stated the investigation was triggered when the ombudsman reported the theft to police.

That claim has since been directly contradicted by the ombudsman’s office.

However, Chief Constable George Hamilton told the Policing Board in February that he wants to “bust the myth that there was no statement of complaint.”

“We had a report of what was quite a serious offense in terms of theft of the documents,” he said.

Mr. Birney and Mr. McCaffrey produced a documentary, No Stone Unturned, about the Loughinisland killings.

Mr. Birney’s solicitor Niall Murphy yesterday said the journalists consider the case to be a “farce.”

“Six months on [from the first arrest] we are no further on, and police today applied for an additional bail condition which would seek to restrict both Trevor and Barry from making public comment in relation to this case,” he said.

“That application was farcical, preposterous and robustly challenged by myself and Mr. McCaffrey’s solicitor John Finucane.

“The application was ultimately refused by the adjudicating sergeant, and the position that currently stands is that they have been bailed now for a further six months so that would be a total of one year on police bail for a case that doesn’t exist.”

Mr. Finucane said: “In an extraordinary and worrying move, police sought to gag my client talking publicly about investigation and witnesses.

“This blatant attack on press freedom was successfully resisted, and concern in this case increases.”

The two journalists are due to speak at an Amnesty International event today.

Mr. McCaffrey said if the additional bail condition had been successful, they would have had to bring their lawyers along to speak for them.

“We would have been gagged from speaking; our solicitors would have had to answer questions for us – what does that say about press freedom?” he said.

Durham Constabulary yesterday denied any attempt to gag the journalists.

“During today’s bail extension, Durham Constabulary applied for a condition which sought to prevent the two suspects from discussing the contents of witness statements, which have been disclosed to them during the ongoing Judicial Review,” a spokesman said.

“At no stage, today did Durham ask for a condition stopping either person talking about their arrest as has been suggested.”

In February, Mr. Birney and Mr. McCaffrey won the right at the High Court to challenge the legality of search warrants issued during the investigation.

The case is set to be heard in May.

Amnesty International and the National Union of Journalists have spoken out in support of the