Safety of journalists remains active concern in Northern Ireland as BBC Panorama team is threatened

A threat against a BBC Panorama documentary team is the latest incident evidencing a worrying climate for the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland, where journalists reporting on paramilitary groups and organised crime are among the most at-risk journalists in the UK. RSF calls again for immediate steps by the UK government to address this alarming trend and ensure the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK.

In early February, a member of the BBC Panorama documentary team investigating alleged criminal underworlds across sport, drug-running and arms-dealing throughout Europe faced a credible threat to his life. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) warned the team of the imminent danger and immediately relocated the journalist to safety with their family. The death threats came as BBC Panorama aired their investigation into the activities of alleged crime boss Daniel Kinahan in the elite world of boxing. Kinahan, who is currently based in Dubai, has been named in the High Court in Dublin as the head of one of Europe's most far-reaching drug cartels which is operational on the island of Ireland. 

“We condemn this threat against a BBC Panorama team, which is only the latest example of a worrying climate for the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland. No journalist anywhere should face such threats simply for doing their job. We call again for the UK government to take concrete steps to address this alarming trend in Northern Ireland and ensure that journalists throughout the country are able to do their jobs in safety”, said RSF’s Director of International Campaigns, Rebecca Vincent.

This latest threat follows a previous incident in late November 2020, when investigative reporter Patricia Devlin was forced into hiding after credible threats to her life by the Ulster Defence Association were discovered by the PSNI. Earlier in the year, blanket threats were also made by criminal paramilitary groups against all Sunday Life and Sunday World staff, drawing widespread criticism from across the political spectrum. 

RSF views these attempts to impede and curtail investigations into organised crime as part of a worrying trend of intimidatory tactics and impunity in Northern Ireland that corrodes working conditions and creates a chilling effect on public interest reporting. RSF has documented a broader alarming trend  of active threats against journalists covering paramilitary activity and organised crime in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of journalist Lyra McKee’s killing in April 2019 - a trend which contributed to the UK’s declined ranking in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index. 

Last year, RSF issued a series of concrete recommendations for the UK authorities in its report on the press freedom climate and safety of journalists in Northern Ireland -- recommendations that RSF continues to raise in its work with the nascent National Committee on the Safety of Journalists. . 

The UK is ranked 35th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 11.02.2021