RSF calls on police in Northern Ireland to fully cooperate with investigation into alleged surveillance of journalists

Police in Northern Ireland may have regularly checked the phone records of multiple journalists in an attempt to uncover their sources, a London tribunal investigating the alleged surveillance of journalists has heard. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on police to cooperate fully with the long-overdue tribunal, and account for any breaches of journalists’ vital right to protect their sources. 

The UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT)  - a body which hears complaints about surveillance by public bodies - is investigating the treatment by police of two journalists from Northern Ireland, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, who were arrested in 2018 on suspicion of stealing police documents  - arrests that were later ruled unlawful by Northern Ireland’s High Court. 

At a hearing on Wednesday 8 May attended by RSF, McCaffrey’s lawyer Ben Jaffey KC said that last week he received 600 new pages of evidence which threw up yet more questions about Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI)’s covert surveillance. One document mentioned “defensive operations”, apparently in place at the end of 2017, against a small group of local journalists which involved “cross-referencing billing with police telephone numbers on a six-monthly basis”. Eight names - redacted in the document shown in court - were listed.

Calling for a full explanation of the new allegations, Jaffey also pointed to a request to access data from Birney’s wife, a request to secure intelligence on a trip Birney and McCaffrey had taken to France, and inconsistencies between the dates when data was obtained and the dates authorisations for that data collection were issued. 

Next month will mark five years since Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney lodged a complaint with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal yet they are still waiting for clear answers about what appear to be deeply shocking breaches of their rights as journalists. The right of reporters to protect their sources is fundamental to public interest journalism, and if police have acted unlawfully, the public has a right to know. The PSNI must stop dragging its feet and fully cooperate with the tribunal, so that any serious violations of press freedom in Northern Ireland come to light.

Fiona O'Brien
Bureau Director, RSF UK

Three UK police forces - Durham Constabulary, PSNI and the Metropolitan Police - are implicated in the IPT’s investigation. Lawyers for Birney and McCaffrey have repeatedly complained about delays in the production of evidence, in particular from PSNI. Birney said what had emerged at the tribunal was revealing of the underlying attitude of police to journalists. 

“It’s shocking that journalists going about their business lawfully were treated by the PSNI so unprofessionally,” he said after the hearing. “Ultimately, I think it’s an undermining of freedom of the press in Northern Ireland, an undermining of the relationship between the PSNI and journalists. Why did the police think this was acceptable?”

Last week, lawyers for the BBC said they had also contacted the tribunal over claims the PSNI had also tried to identify the sources of  a former BBC reporter, Vincent Kearney, when he worked on a programme about the Police Ombudsman’s Office in 2011. 

Wednesday’s hearing of the secretive tribunal was only the second to be held in public. The substantive hearing is scheduled to begin in October.  

The UK is ranked 23rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index. Northern Ireland is one of the most difficult regions for journalists to operate. 

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