Journalism will be fatally undermined if police succeed in a legal bid to force a reporter to hand over information about the Real IRA murders of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland, it was claimed today.
Suzanne Breen, the journalist at the centre of the court battle, was reacting after a judge said he was provisionally minded to grant the order that would effectively compel her to disclose her sources to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
Belfast Recorder Tom Burgess told lawyers representing the northern editor of the Dublin-published Sunday Tribune that it was now up to them to present him with legal arguments that would change his initial opinion.
He also ruled that police evidence supporting the bid would not be disclosed to the court as it might interfere with the live investigation into the double murder case.
Ms Breen said if the judge found against her it would have severe ramifications for the right of journalists to protect their sources.
"This case potentially could close down journalism," she said after the hearing at Laganside court.
She also branded as disgraceful the decision not to make public the police case against her.
"We are fighting and challenging the case and we don't know the details of the police case against us," she said.
"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?"
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."
After the murders of Sappers Mark Quinsey, 23, from Birmingham, and Patrick Azimkar, 21, from London, outside Massereene army base in Antrim in March, Ms Breen received a call from someone in the Real IRA claiming responsibility.
While prominent Lurgan republican Colin Duffy, 41, has been charged with the double murder, police are still looking for other suspects.
As well as phone records and notes relating to the claim of responsibility, detectives also want information connected to an interview the journalist carried out with a senior Real IRA representative.
In it, the dissident group admitted murdering Denis Donaldson, the senior Sinn Fein official who was exposed as an MI5 informer.
Mr Donaldson was shot dead more than three years ago at a County Donegal hideaway where he had set up home after being unmasked.
Judge Burgess today said the PSNI application, which was made under terror legislation, had cleared the first hurdle in that it had proved 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 to personal security 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 on the police evidence, which he heard last Friday, would be placed in a sealed envelope and would be available to any court of appeal judges if the case ever reached that stage.
"I'm not trying to hide behind anything," he 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 receives skeleton argument from the respondent and the applicants he will then progress the case to a full hearing on May 29.
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.
Ms Breen was flanked by supporters and representatives from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which is backing her stance.
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."
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 journalist to court 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 (in Craigavon two days later) to provide it to the PSNI," added Mr Durkan.
The police declined to comment on Ms Breen's claims.
"There are ongoing legal proceedings and it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time," said a PSNI spokeswoman.