Leading article

PSNI operation damaged press freedom

Noel Doran

While the PSNI has said it will take time to consider the judgment issued at the High Court in Belfast last Friday in the case of the journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, this is not a process which should be surrounded by undue delays.

The ruling by the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan could hardly have provided a more comprehensive indictment of the actions of police officers which led to the arrests of Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey and the raids on their homes and offices just under two years ago

Sir Declan said the way in which the PSNI obtained warrants targeting the two journalists fell `woefully short' of fair standards, and no grounds could be identified to justify the major security operation which followed.

The debacle was directly linked to the involvement of Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey in the acclaimed documentary No Stone Unturned which examined the RUC's handling of the 1994 loyalist murders of six Catholic men while watching a World Cup match in a bar at Loughinisland in Co Down.

After the film was released in 2017, a police investigation took place into suggestions of a connection with the alleged theft of confidential documents from the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman's Office.

If any grounds had been offered by for questioning the journalists, both men have made clear that they were prepared to present themselves by appointment at a police station with their lawyers.

Instead, police inexplicably took the draconian step of gaining permits for exhaustive searches of Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey's property which were carried out by a full team of detectives from the Durham Constabulary supported by PSNI officers.

Computer equipment, files, phones, cameras and notebooks were all seized, and the journalists were arrested and interviewed before being subsequently released.

Both have already been fully vindicated, but there can be no doubt that the police intervention had hugely negative implications for press freedom.

It is important that all the material confiscated in 2018, including the computer data, is returned to Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey as soon as possible.

Although chief constable Simon Byrne has not taken up his post at that time, an apology from him on behalf of the PSNI would go at least some way to repairing the serious damage caused by the episode.

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