Arrested reporters slam ‘irony’ of Government championing press freedom
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were arrested in connection with a documentary exposing police collusion.
Two Belfast reporters arrested in connection with a documentary exposing police collusion have hit out at the “irony” of the UK Government championing press freedom.
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey said the “surreal” situation had left them, their families and those they work with facing “huge pressure” since they were detained last August by officers from Durham Constabulary.
They were arrested over the alleged theft of confidential material from the offices of the Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire.
The material relates to a police investigation into the murder of six men in Loughinisland.
A 2016 report from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland found that there had been collusion between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Volunteer Force killers.
The 2017 film, No Stone Unturned – directed by Oscar-winning film-maker Alex Gibney – explored the unsolved killings and police investigation in detail, and named one of the alleged killers.
Speaking to the Press Association at Amnesty International’s Media Awards ceremony in London, Mr Birney said: “What happened to us could happen to any journalist in any part of the UK.
“That’s a fact, and that’s what’s shocking about this, that police can today, in the world we now live in, with journalists getting murdered, with journalists getting arrested and incarcerated around the world, that here, the height of irony, that the Foreign Office has decided that this year is the year of media freedom, that a British police force, Durham Constabulary, would decide it’s absolutely proportionate and appropriate to arrest us on a summer’s morning and put us in a cell for 14 hours.
“That’s shocking, and it’s something I think that journalists right across the UK have got to be aware of, that they are at risk, and if we lose this case it’s a loss for journalism and it’s a loss for media freedom in the UK and in Ireland.”
Mr McCaffrey said the risk to journalists in the UK is real, despite the Foreign Secretary’s criticism of attacks on press freedom abroad.
He said: “Jeremy Hunt and the UK government are going around the world defending press freedom, but what happens on their own doorstep?
“They are arresting journalists on their own doorstep.
“This isn’t Turkey. This isn’t Myanmar. This is London, this is Glasgow, this is Belfast. And this is happening.”
Mr Birney said they are still in shock at the fact they have been arrested.
He said: “If you had told me a year ago that we were going to be arrested and going to be on bail. That we were going to have to give police three days’ notice to leave the jurisdiction I would’ve said that you’re mad.”
Addressing the auditorium ahead of presenting an award, Mr Birney spoke of the value of leaks in revealing the truth.
He said: “Leaked documents are the bread and butter of our trade.
“Indeed, it could be argued that leaks are an essential ingredient of a healthy, functioning democracy.
“Leaks help journalists to tell the stories that matter. Leaks help us to serve the public interest. And they help us to tell the truth.
“The leaked document Barry received in the post helped us to reveal the truth behind the murder of six innocent men.
“They were shot in the back as they watched a world cup football match on the TV in their local pub.
“No one has ever been held accountable for their deaths.”
He added: “The police could have gone after the killers, but instead, they targeted us, the journalists.”
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland programme director, said: “Amnesty is deeply concerned at the arrests of two of the most widely respected journalists in Northern Ireland, and the seizure of documents and computer equipment.
“The arrest has sent a shiver of fear through media across Northern Ireland and we are in no doubt that press freedom is now at grave risk.”