Belfast Telegraph

Republican Brendan Conway's bid to gag Sunday World fails

A convicted robber failed today in a legal bid to have a newspaper banned from reporting his alleged links to murder and dissident republican terrorism.

In a major endorsement of press freedom, a High Court judge refused to grant Brendan Conway an injunction against the Sunday World.

Mr Justice Gillen said: "It is in the public interest that investigative journalism should not be impeded where it is publishing legitimate information concerning serious criminal activity."

Conway, a 39-year-old from north Belfast, claimed he had been vilified and harassed by a series of sensationalist and false articles. Allegations detailed in court included:

:: That he is a Real IRA boss who headed up a tiger kidnapping gang.

:: That he was responsible for the murder of  drug dealer Kevin Kearney in the city last October.

:: That he is a Special Branch agent who supplied bugged cars to other dissidents.

Conway acknowledges he is a republican who took part in a protest against prison conditions endured by Lurgan man Colin Duffy and others.

But he denies all of the newspaper claims, contending that they have put his life in danger.

Police have issued two threat warnings about a planned gun attack on him since the first of four articles was published last October.

He has also been assaulted, abused in the street for being an informer and forced into hiding, the court heard.

As well as claiming harassment, he accused the newspaper of malicious falsehood and misuse of private information.

With libel proceedings issued, Conway was seeking an interim injunction to restrain any further publication of his alleged activities.

His legal team argued that the threats against him were due to the newspaper reports.

They contended that freedom of expression rights must give way to protecting his life.

But the Sunday World defended the proceedings by insisting that Conway should be denied an injunction because of his alleged association with dissident republicans.

Backed by the BBC, UTV and Belfast Telegraph, lawyers for the newspaper warned that imposing a ban on reporting his alleged activities would have a chilling effect on attempts to expose an underworld of drugs and murder.

In his ruling Mr Justice Gillen rejected all grounds on which the injunction was sought, including harassment, right to privacy and malicious falsehood.

Despite being satisfied of a real and immediate risk to Conway's life, he found the threat was not due to the Sunday World focus on him

The judge listed other evidence of Conway's alleged close association with crime and leading dissident republicans.

It included his conviction and imprisonment for a robbery closely associated to a £250,000 tiger kidnapping plot, and a series of separate media reports and online blogs centred on him.

He was also arrested and questioned about the Kearney murder before being released without charge.

"The sad truth is that in the context of the situation in Northern Ireland, the plaintiff had put himself at real and immediate risk by the various activities described above," Mr Justice Gillen said.

He acknowledged that the Sunday World pursued Conway's activities "with all the accusatory fervour of unflinching and unsparing investigative journalism".

But according to the judge the intensity of the probe is often the lifeblood of the right to freedom of expression.

It is impossible to draw the conclusion that the threat to Conway's life originated in the Sunday World articles, the judge held.

Even if some link had been established, the contribution to an existing state of affairs was deemed insufficient to grant an injunction.

Repeatedly emphasising the importance of press freedom, Mr Justice Gillen further held it to be in the public interest for investigative journalism to be free to reveal the full criminal activity of someone also allegedly acting as a state agent.

The newspaper is entitled to "unflinchingly and robustly investigate" so long as it does not go beyond the European Convention on Human Rights.

"The interests of a democratic society in ensuring a free press to deal with such matters must weigh heavily in the balance in deciding whether curtailment of that freedom is reasonable and proportionate in this instance," the judge said.

"Doubtless these articles are attended by elements of sensationalism but it is not for the courts to unduly restrict the discretion vested in editors as to how they present their stories."

Confirming his refusal of the application, he added: "Greater damage would be inflicted on the public interest and the right of the press to have freedom of expression by granting such relief at this stage than would be inflicted on any of the rights of the plaintiff.

"Moreover, as the evidence currently stands - and I recognise this may change at a full haring - I do not believe that the applicant is likely to establish at trial that further publications on these or similar matters should not be allowed."

Although Conway was not present for the verdict, the Sunday World's northern editor, Jim McDowell, described it as a great day for freedom of the press.

He said outside court: "This is a great judgment, coming down as it indisputably does, on the side of investigative journalism."

Thanking other media organisations for their support, Mr McDowell added: "If this injunction had been successful it would have gagged all of the press."

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