UK: RSF calls for full transparency in investigation into alleged police surveillance of journalists

A London tribunal investigating the alleged surveillance of two journalists in Northern Ireland has heard shocking allegations that police set a trap for the journalists in order to unmask their sources. RSF calls for the investigation to be concluded swiftly and in full transparency, in the interest of ensuring respect going forward for journalists’ vital right to protect their sources. 


The UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal - a body which hears complaints about surveillance by public bodies - has been looking into the treatment by police of journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, who were arrested in 2018 on suspicion of stealing police documents. They had been working on a documentary film, No Stone Unturned, which explored apparent collusion between the police and suspected murderers in the 1994 Loughinisland massacre in County Down. The journalists’ arrests were later ruled unlawful by Northern Ireland’s High Court.

At a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on 28 February, lawyers for Birney and McCaffrey said new evidence in the form of police documents, disclosed to them just before the hearing, seemed to show that the arrests and raids on the journalists’ homes had been designed to provoke them into contacting their sources, so the latter could be identified by police. 

Lawyers for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Durham Constabulary have yet to respond to the allegation. The hearing, attended by RSF, was adjourned prematurely because of the late disclosure of the important new information. 


What we heard in court was deeply alarming, raising the possibility that police abused Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey’s rights as journalists multiple times. Investigative journalism in the public interest is an essential part of democracy and it is vital that the tribunal conclude its investigation promptly and in full transparency.

Fiona O'Brien
UK Bureau Director

Acting for the journalists, Ben Jaffey KC said he had received substantial documents, one of them just hours before the hearing, which appeared to show police had applied for direct surveillance authorisation of a third party at the time of the arrests. The exact nature of the surveillance was redacted and Jaffey said his clients feared it had been covert and intrusive. 

Among other things, the new evidence also showed London’s Metropolitan Police Force had obtained communication data from McCaffrey in 2011, and even wrote the journalist a letter asking him to tell them his source - a request he refused. 

The hearing, presided over by Lord Justice Singh, was adjourned to give the legal teams time to consider the recently disclosed evidence. Though the tribunal has been working on the case for more than three years, it was the first hearing to be held in public.

The UK is ranked 26th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index.


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