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PSNI demand for riot footage 'could put journalists at risk'

Journalists could be put at risk by increased police demands for access to media footage from riots, Northern Ireland's main news organisations have claimed.

All of the province's main news organisations, including the Belfast Telegraph, have written to the PSNI Chief Constable to protest at having to hand over riot footage.

The letter from both print and broadcast outlets highlights to Matt Baggott (below) the "genuine fear that terrorists and rioters will target the media whom they perceive to be evidence gatherers for the State" if the PSNI continues to demand the disclosure of material gathered for news purposes.

The protest comes after a senior judge ordered news gatherers to hand over images of serious street violence in east Belfast last month.

"We wish to express our concern that the increased use of indiscriminate applications for the production orders against media organisations under the Police and Criminal Evidence (NI) Order 1989 is endangering our staff and freelance professionals," the letter states. "It appears that in recent months the PSNI has been relying with ever greater frequency on all encompassing requests and ultimately applications for untransmitted footage and pictures following civil disturbances.

"This is despite the PSNI deploying sophisticated CCTV, aerial film, vehicle-mounted cameras and having the benefit of the media's broadcast/published footage and pictures, as well as, presumably, having informer evidence."

Last month Judge Tom Burgess, Recorder for Belfast, decided the public interest in convicting those responsible for the serious sectarian violence in July outweighed the perceived danger for Press representatives from releasing the unbroadcast or unpublished material.

A Press photographer was shot in the leg when a dissident republican opened fire during the two nights of trouble in the lower Newtownards Road area.

And, during a PSNI application for the release of all coverage of the rioting, it also emerged that another journalist had narrowly missed being hit by a bullet.

It is understood that the PSNI had over 70 hours of its own video footage relating to the disturbances at the Short Strand and lower Newtownards Road, which had not yet been viewed, but the force was nevertheless pursuing an application for the disclosure of untransmitted footage from media organisations.

Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson and senior executives from Sky News, UTV, BBC Northern Ireland, the Irish News, News Letter and the Press Association have urged the PSNI to "implement a new policy" to review all its own material and only go to court for a production order as a "last resort".

"We therefore request that the PSNI institute a new policy whereby applications for production orders against media organisations are sought only as a last resort, where the PSNI's own evidence has been reviewed and has been found to be deficient in some way," the letter states.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinema- tograph and Technicians Union (BECTU) have also aired their concerns about infringements on the freedom of the Press following the court ruling.

The letter continues: "It is incumbent upon the PSNI to ensure that its actions do nothing to increase the risk placed on our staff."

Last night a spokesman for the PSNI said: "We can confirm we have received the letter and are studying its contents."

In July Belfast Recorder Judge Tom Burgess decided the public interest in convicting those responsible for the serious sectarian violence outweighed the perceived danger for media representatives from releasing the unbroadcast material. Lawyers for police argued the untelevised footage would contain information of substantial value in identifying those allegedly involved in attempted murder, grievous bodily harm with intent, and rioting. The news organisations' legal representatives contended the application was premature. The judge's ruling sparked controversy.

Belfast Telegraph