No Stone Unturned: Victory for press freedom

Journalists who reported on collusion between the British state and the loyalist death squad responsible for the 1994 Loughinisland pub massacre have won a major victory for press freedom, reports Sam O’Brien.

Campaigners won a major victory for press freedom at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast last week. Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey are journalists who worked on the documentary film No Stone Unturned, released in 2017. The film reveals new evidence of collusion between MI5, the RUC and the loyalist death squad responsible for the Loughinisland Pub Massacre on 18 June 1994.

They were arrested on 31 August 2018 on charges of theft of classified documents from the Police Ombudsman’s Office. Yet Michael Maguire Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI) has since confirmed to Alex Gibney, the director of No Stone Unturned, that PONI has not made any complaint of theft to the police. A whistleblower supplied the documents to the journalists.

Over 100 officers from the Durham Constabulary and PSNI, including armed police, were involved in the arrest of Birney and McCaffrey. They confiscated millions of documents as well as computers and phones during the raids on their homes. They even took phones belonging to Birney’s daughters. The two were held for 14 hours.

They were questioned again on 1 March 2019. The police extended their bail conditions until September 2019 by which time they wouldhave been on bail for a year. The police also attempted to impose a bail condition that would have prevented them from speaking about the case, effectively gagging them. This bail condition was contested by their lawyers and dropped by the adjudicating sergeant.

If they had been convicted they faced years in jail. So the stakes could not have been higher.

The Judicial Review hearing, which began on Wednesday 29 May, was brought to challenge the legality of the warrants used during their arrest. Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan ruled that the issuing of the arrest warrants had been inappropriate and the court quashed them. In a further ruling on Friday 31 May, the court ordered that all of the confiscated material should be returned to the journalists.

On Monday 3 June the police dropped all the charges. On Tuesday the journalists collected the documents and laptops had confiscated.

This victory comes after a substantial campaign by the NUJ, Amnesty International and others and at a time when press freedom internationally is under renewed attack. The attacks range from the petty and vindictive treatment of journalists by Trump and his supporters –  itself a serious issue when you consider that many of his supporters are violent and armed – to the deliberate targeting of Palestinian journalists by the Israeli Defence Forces such as Safinaz Allouh, shot in the head with a rubber coated plastic bullet while covering the Great March of Return in Gaza; the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives; the assassination of Gauri Lankesh by the far right in India. Or the deliberate targeting of journalists covering the Gilet Jaunes protests in France by riot police using flash bombs.

Commenting on the case Seamus Dooley  NUJ assistant general secretary, said:

We welcome the decision to end the investigation but this case raises a number of fundamental questions about the attitude of the PSNI and Durham Constabulary towards the media. The manner in which warrants were secured, the execution of those warrants, the severe bail restrictions imposed on Barry and Trevor and the damage done to their reputation cannot simply be brushed aside on foot of a High Court judgement which could not have been more damning. There should be an independent investigation into the police handling of this case.

It also comes at a time when a collapsing Tory government is propped up by the votes of the DUP who have historic and ongoing links with loyalist terror organisations.

The British Army and the PSNI are determined to escape accountability for massacres such as Loughinisland, Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy.

Much of the mainstream media such as the BBC have almost completely failed to cover the arrest and subsequent treatment of Birney and McCaffrey. Acres of news coverage is given to the issue of Tommy Robinson’s freedom to speak or to the no platforming of hate speech at student union events. But when it comes to the arrest and harassment of journalists by the British state there is little interest. The story is relegated to the regional news section of websites and never seems to make it onto national TV and radio.

The campaign for justice for those murdered in Loughinisland will continue.  The police have questions to answer. One such question was posed by McCaffrey outside court on Wednesday:

Why did they go to suspects and ask them about journalists, instead of asking them about the killings of Barney Green, Dan McCreanor, Adrian Rogan, Eamon Byrne, Malcolm Jenkinson and Patsy O’Hare? (Irish Times, 29 MAY 2019)

You can help the campaign by arranging a screening of No Stone Unturned in your area.

Details of the NUJ campaign: here. Details of the Amnesty International campaign: here. Text of the Early Day Motion #2091: here. Further reporting available here.

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