Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly urged to reflect on ‘own contribution to free press’

Republican party has been criticised for a series of libel actions against journalists

Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said the families of Kingsmill victims are entitled to truth and justice
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

Sinn Féin and one of its senior figures have been urged to “reflect on their own contribution to a free press” after voicing concern about police surveillance of reporters.

The party’s policing spokesperson Gerry Kelly has called for a meeting with PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher about what the North Belfast MLA termed “worrying revelations” which emerged this week at a hearing of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) in London.

Mr Boutcher is due to meet the Policing Board leadership to discuss the matter.

Journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney lodged a complaint with the IPT after they were targeted in a police operation five years ago.

At a disclosure hearing on Wednesday, a document from 2017 emerged stating that every six months some journalists’ phone bills were “cross-referenced” against police telephone numbers.

Mr Kelly, a member of the Policing Board, called for the meeting with the chief constable to discuss the “unlawful covert surveillance”.

Journalists Trevor Birney, left, and Barry McCaffrey outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in London
Journalists Trevor Birney, left, and Barry McCaffrey outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in London

“Disclosure from this tribunal has now also pointed to extensive covert surveillance and the harvesting on an industrial scale of the phone data of journalists by the police,” he said.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that police and British state bodies have gone to extreme lengths to monitor and silence journalists rather than deal with the allegations of collusion and police corruption which journalists have shone a light on.”

Two libel actions against journalists taken by the North Belfast MLA have been struck out in recent months.

Other senior Sinn Féin figures have also launched defamation proceedings against reporters in the Republic.

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said the way journalists had been treated by police and the intelligence services was “beyond the pale” but he argued that legal actions by politicians were also a “serious threat to press freedom”.

“Routine surveillance to identify sources is deeply worrying and represents a serious threat to a free and robust press,” he said.

“The same threat to good and fearless journalism is created by scandalous, frivolous and vexatious litigation from senior politicians who should know better – libel threats are a specific and serious threat to press freedom in Northern Ireland and create an immense burden on the professional and personal lives of journalists.”

The South Belfast representative also accused Sinn Féin of working alongside the DUP to “water down the Defamation Act”.

“Sinn Féin of course worked with the DUP to water down the Defamation Act that would have made the situation less onerous for the press. Sinn Fein and Gerry Kelly should reflect on their own contribution to a free press,” he said.

A Sinn Féin spokesperson said: “Sinn Féin’s focus is on the unacceptable surveillance of journalists, including those shining a light on collusion in the mass murder of civilians in Loughinisland.”