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Belfast journalists questioned by police

UK News | Published:

It is understood that efforts are being made to restrict the ability of Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey to speak about their case.

Trevor Birney, left, and Barry McCaffrey

An attempt by police to gag two prominent Belfast journalists has failed, according to their lawyers.

Award-winning reporters Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey presented themselves to Musgrave police station for scheduled questioning on Friday.

They were interviewed separately by police.

It comes six months after Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney were arrested over the alleged theft of confidential material from the offices of Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Dr Michael Maguire.

The material relates to a police investigation into the murder of six men in Loughinisland.

A police press release issued at the time stated the investigation was triggered when the ombudsman reported the theft to police.

That claim has since been directly contradicted by the ombudsman’s office itself.

However, Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable George Hamilton told the Policing Board in February that he wants to “bust the myth that there was no statement of complaint”.

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PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton (Brian Lawless/PA)

“We had a report of what was quite a serious offence in terms of theft of the documents,” he said.

Mr Hamilton said he had asked Durham Police to carry out the investigation to give confidence.

He said the Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary is willing to attend a meeting of the Policing Board to answer questions around the arrests.

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Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey produced a documentary about the 1994 Loughinisland killings, which were carried out by loyalist terrorists.

The No Stone Unturned programme examined claims of state collusion in the murders.

Barry McCaffrey, left, and Trevor Birney
Barry McCaffrey, left, and Trevor Birney (Liam McBurney/PA)

Speaking after meeting police on Friday, Mr Birney’s solicitor Niall Murphy said they consider the case to be a “farce”.

“Today is six months to the day since Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were arrested in a police operation arising out of what we consider to be a malicious investigation in relation to the documentary No Stone Unturned,” he said.

“Six months on we are no further on, and police today applied for an additional bail condition which would seek to restrict both Trevor and Barry from making public comment in relation to this case.

“That application was farcical, preposterous and robustly challenged by myself and Mr McCaffrey’s solicitor John Finucane.

“The application was ultimately refused by the adjudicating sergeant and the position that currently stands is that they have been bailed now for a further six months so that would be a total of one year on police bail for a case that doesn’t exist.

“There is no theft, there is no complaint of a theft and police have taken investigative action arising from this film and that police have arrested the two people that seek to tell the truth about the circumstances of the atrocity in Loughinisland is a farce, and a malicious farce.”

Mr McCaffrey’s lawyer John Finucane said: “In an extraordinary and worrying move, police sought to gag my client talking publicly about investigation and witnesses.

“This blatant attack on press freedom was successfully resisted and concern in this case increases.”

The two journalists are due to be speak at an Amnesty International event on Saturday.

Mr McCaffrey said if the additional bail condition had been successful, they would have had to bring their lawyers along to speak for them.

“We would have been gagged from speaking, our solicitors would have had to answer questions for us, what does that say about press freedom,” he said.

Durham Constabulary has denied any attempt to gag the journalists.

“This investigation will continue and we are anxious that it remains as open and transparent as possible,” a spokesman said.

“During today’s bail extension, Durham Constabulary applied for a condition which sought to prevent the two suspects from discussing the contents of witness statements, which have been disclosed to them during the ongoing Judicial Review.

“At no stage today did Durham ask for a condition stopping either person talking about their arrest as has been suggested. These matters were properly adjudicated upon by an independent Custody Officer.

“Today’s process is not an attempt at gagging anyone. We simply would not wish to see our investigation undermined by having witness statements inappropriately disclosed on social media”.

In February, Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey won the right at the High Court to challenge the legality of search warrants issued during the investigation.

The case is set to be heard in May.

Amnesty International and the National Union of Journalists have spoken out in support of the journalists.

Amnesty’s Northern Ireland programme director Patrick Corrigan said the arrests of “two of the most widely respected journalists in Northern Ireland has sent a shiver of fear through the region”.

“When the police are arresting journalists who have investigated police collusion in the killing of civilians, rather than the killers and those who helped them get away with murder, people everywhere should be worried,” he said.

NUJ assistant general secretary Seamus Dooley described the extension of police bail as a “travesty”.

“This was a blatant attempt to thwart the massive international campaign against the arrest of two journalists whose only crime is their search for truth and justice. International awareness, cross community support and growing media interests in this violation of human rights is clearly proving embarrassing,” he said.

“This crude attempt to suppress our campaign in support of Trevor and Barry shows the truth of the adage ‘truth hurts’. Barry and Trevor have won overwhelming support because it is clear to all who care about justice that these arrests cannot be justified. The extension of bail until September 2019 is a travesty and imposes ongoing hardship on our members, their families and colleagues.

“These journalists are being punished because they have exposed brutal human rights abuses in Northern Ireland. The legal threats, harassment and intimidation must stop. A free press is critical to the health of democracy and freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. The police should not be allowed to continue to violate basic media freedoms.”

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