Judge 'minded' to force journalist to hand over Real IRA information
A judge in Belfast today said he was "provisionally minded" to grant a police order compelling journalist Suzanne Breen to hand over information about the Real IRA murders of two British soldiers.
Judge Burgess today said the PSNI application under terror legislation had cleared the first hurdle in that the case was terror related and that the information held by Ms Breen could be of value to detectives probing it.
He gave the journalist's defence lawyers one week to come up with any legal arguments as to why he should not grant the order.
Judge Burgess said these could relate to general issues of press freedom and also more personal matters, such as whether handing the information over would put the reporter's life at risk.
He said while he was provisionally of a mind to grant the police application that did not mean he definitely would: "That's where I am at the minute," he told Ms Breen's barrister.
"Where I will be after I have heard your argument could be a completely different place altogether."
He added: "I am totally open-minded as to where this is going.
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 police evidence, which he heard last Friday, would be placed in a sealed envelope and would be available to any court of appeal if the case ever reached that stage.
"I'm not trying to hide behind anything," the judge said. "I'm happy for anybody (in respect of appeal court judges) to look at the reasons why I've come to the decision I have."
After the judge received skeleton argument from the respondent and the applicant he will then progress the case to a full hearing.
Ms Breen has refused to comply with police requests made formally to her 11 days ago to hand over the information, insisting she has to protect her sources.
Outside court she condemned the decision not to disclose the police case.
"I think it is quite disgraceful that we are never perhaps during this case getting to hear the police evidence that has brought us to court," she said.
"We are fighting and challenging the case and we don't know the details of the police case against us.
"It puts us in a very difficult position. What is the PSNI frightened of?
"Why will they not give us the details of the case?
"It's very, very hard to mount a challenge to the case when you don't know the details of the case against you," she added.
"I think it is quite disgraceful this is happening in Northern Ireland in 2009 when there is meant to be a new dispensation."
Ms Breen was flanked by supporters and representatives from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which is backing her right to protect her sources.
She went on to explain what her defence would be based on. "Our arguments will be twofold," she said.
"It will be based on the protection of sources, the journalist's right to confidentiality, it's part of the NUJ code of conduct.
"And it will also be based on the risk to my life, basically were I to comply with the police's demands, then in terms of an organisation like the Real IRA."
She said the case could have implications for the entire profession of journalism as it could interfere with the reporter's ability to protect any type of source in any story.
"This case potentially could close down journalism," she said.
The SDLP said today that it had tabled motions at Westminster, in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in councils across the province in support of Ms Breen.
Party leader and Foyle MP Mark Durkan said the decision of the PSNI to take the Sunday Tribune Northern Editor to court in a bid to force her to hand over material relating to stories about dissident republicans could put investigative reporting and reporters at risk.
He said: "The SDLP acknowledge the proper role the PSNI must play in the investigation of crime.
"However we are extremely concerned at the decision of the PSNI to seek a court order compelling the Sunday Tribune's Northern Editor, Suzanne Breen, to disclose information gathered in her reporting of dissident republican terrorist activities.
"We believe this order would put both investigative reporting and reporters at risk."
Furthermore, he said, it could deter people with information about wrongdoing from coming forward to journalists.
"The SDLP reiterates our call for anyone with information relating to the murders of Sapper Patrick Azimkar, Sapper Mark Quinsy and Constable Stephen Carroll to provide it to the PSNI," added Mr Durkan.