What price press freedom in Northern Ireland?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116557″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]As images of serious violence in Northern Ireland beamed around the world last week, many outside the post-conflict society wondered what had gone wrong.

The province, long hailed as one of the best examples of peacebuilding, was for the first time in recent years seeing petrol bombs, vehicle hijackings and masked figures back on the streets on an almost nightly basis.

There is no simple or straightforward explanation for the unrest, which started off in loyalist areas under the guise of peaceful protests.

Those demonstrations surrounded the ‘Irish Sea border’ or Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit deal that keeps NI aligned with EU rules and treated differently to the rest of the UK.

Controversy over the state prosecutor’s move not to prosecute alleged coronavirus breaches by senior Sinn Fein members at the 2020 funeral of republican and former IRA man Bobby Storey, has also inflamed tensions. The belief in unionist and loyalist circles is that political favouritism played a part in that decision.

Add into the melting pot the recent disruption to loyalist paramilitary crime networks by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), you now have a dangerous mix in a place where anger and frustration has long played out through street violence.

As rioting broke out and escalated across towns and cities, it didn’t take long to spread to interface areas – adding a dangerous sectarian element to the violence.

On 7 April, three days before the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a bus travelling close to a peace divide in the capital of Belfast was hijacked and petrol bombed by loyalist youths.

It sparked scenes not seen on the streets of the loyalist Shankill Road and the Irish Republican stronghold of Lanark Way for some time.

As masonry, fireworks and Molotov cocktails were fired back and forth between hundreds of rival youths, a car rammed into the so-called peace gate that was locked to separate the two communities.

Ironically painted with the words, ‘There Was Never A Good War Or A Bad Peace’, the padlocked steel doors were eventually prised open allowing disorder and destruction to continue into the night, and years of priceless cross-community work put at risk.

News agencies around the world reported on the danger to Northern Ireland’s fragile peace, and the fear that escalating sectarian violence could spiral it back to the dark days of the Troubles, when more than 3,000 people lost their lives.

Sporadic violence, unfortunately, has long been a part of Ulster’s journey from war to peace; a peace that is not perfect but that has achieved the goal of convincing most people that a return to those days cannot, and will not, happen.

Rightfully, international political leaders took notice, expressing concern and calls for calm.

US President Joe Biden said he remained “steadfast” in his support “for a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace”.

What many do not realise is that the voices he refers to have been under threat for quite some time.

Over the last two years, dozens of journalists in Northern Ireland have been threatened by both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups for their work in exposing criminality and the grip these gangs still have on communities.

Those threats, mainly from loyalists, have escalated in recent times and are having a detrimental impact on press freedom in Northern Ireland.

In May 2020, reporters at both the Sunday World and Sunday Life newspapers received a blanket threat from South East Antrim Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a loyalist criminal cartel that was recently the subject of a high-profile drugs bust.

The gang threatened to take violent action against the journalists, with police informing each of them that intelligence suggests the gangsters may also intimidate their families.

The threats were condemned by major politicians, who in turn then each received death threats from the gang for speaking out in support of the media workers.

In November, the same criminals threatened a journalist with the Belfast Telegraph.

The same month, further loyalist death threats were delivered to the homes of two reporters working for the Sunday World newspaper.

They were informed by police that West Belfast UDA planned to carry out some form of attack on them.
Both had been covering intimidation and threats to those living in a loyalist area and had been named in threatening social media posts prior to being informed of the death threats.

Senior police told one journalist she would be shot, and that the PSNI had received information that the crime gang may try to entrap her.

Since the Northern Ireland Protocol was put in place on 1 January, threats have continued.

Two journalists had their names spray-painted on walls with gun cross hairs in February.

At least one of those was targeted by a paramilitary gang involved in talks with other loyalist groups over discontent over the Irish Sea Border.

Hours before the interface violence broke out in west Belfast last week, press photographer Kevin Scott was attacked as he covered the disorder for the Belfast Telegraph newspaper.

He was pulled to the ground by two masked men who smashed his cameras and threatened, before being told to: “fuck off back to your own area you fenian cunt”.

At the same time 70 miles away, billboards were being erected in Derry by the family of murdered journalist Lyra McKee, appealing for information over her killing.

The 29-year-old was shot dead two years ago by a New IRA gunman as she observed a riot in the city’s Creggan estate. No-one has been convicted over her murder.

As the anniversary of her murder approaches, threats to the safety of journalists have escalated to levels many have not seen in recent times, or even in their entire careers.

The distress and trauma of such threats is compounded by the fact those responsible are continually treated with impunity by the police.

Twenty years ago, Sunday World journalist Martin O’Hagan was assassinated by members of the violent Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF).

The killing gang – who have never been convicted – later released a statement saying the reporter had been murdered for “crimes against the loyalist people”.

Two decades on the same type of language is not only bedecking lampposts across Northern Ireland in the form of anti-Irish Sea Border placards, but is also being used by those with influence in unionism and loyalism.

It is this type of hard rhetoric that has fed into the hostility to media workers here, who have been murdered and attacked as they go about their jobs.

Northern Ireland has paid a very high price for its peace; but what price must it pay to protect press freedom?[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”42671″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Ireland notified by Council of Europe over legal action against media outlet

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship has filed an alert to the Council of Europe about a defamation action that is being taken against the Dublin Inquirer, its co-founder Sam Tranum and reporter Laoise Neylon. The Council of Europe has formally notified Ireland of the legal action.

The alert is the first media freedom alert on Ireland since the Council of Europe’s alert platform was launched in 2015. The platform catalogues threats to media freedom in the Council of Europe’s 47 member states.

On the back of the alert, Index on Censorship and seven other media freedom organisations have also written to justice minister, Helen McEntee, and foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, to express their concerns over the lawsuit.

“We believe that this legal action is a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation (Slapp), intended to intimidate and silence an independent media outlet that is reporting in the public interest,” they wrote.

“The aim of a Slapp is not to succeed in court, but to drain their targets of money, time, and energy in an effort to discourage them from reporting further on a particular person or issue,” the letter explains.

The organisations urge the government to pursue reform of Irish defamation law and to support the creation of anti-Slapps legislation at EU level. “We call on you to get behind such measures in order to bring about concrete protections – including an anti-Slapps directive – for freedom of expression, access to information, and ultimately our democracies.”

Click here to read our report on the rise of Slapps.

Read below the letter to McEntee and Coveney in full:


8 September 2020

Dear Minister Helen McEntee TD, Minister for Justice

Dear Minister Simon Coveney TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

Cc: Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU

Index on Censorship, alongside the undersigned press freedom organisations, are writing to raise our concern about legal action that is being taken against the independent news outlet, the Dublin Inquirer, its co-founder Sam Tranum, and its reporter Laoise Neylon.

As outlined in the media freedom alert that was issued by the Council of Europe today, the Dublin Inquirer is facing a defamation lawsuit for an article it published on its website on 26 August, which reported on an eviction that had taken place in Glasnevin the previous week. Tranum, Neylon, and the Dublin Inquirer, were served with summons on 31 August.

We believe that this legal action is a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation (SLAPP), intended to intimidate and silence an independent media outlet that is reporting in the public interest. The aim of a SLAPP is not to succeed in court, but to drain their targets of money, time, and energy in an effort to discourage them from reporting further on a particular person or issue.

The SLAPP that the Dublin Inquirer is facing is just one example of a phenomenon that has become widespread in Europe in recent years: at the time of her death in 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had 47 vexatious lawsuits filed against her. This year, the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists has recorded SLAPPs in Belgium, Malta, France, Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania – and we have reason to believe that these are just the tip of the iceberg.

The lengthy process and extremely high costs associated with defending a defamation case means that Ireland’s draconian defamation laws are an ideal tool with which to threaten and intimidate. Because of the arduousness of exhausting domestic measures, the European Court of Human Rights provides little practical protection to Irish journalists and media outlets. This means that small media outlets, like the Dublin Inquirer, could face closure when targeted with such legal threats and actions.

We therefore urge you, not only to pursue the long overdue reform of Irish defamation law, but to support the creation of robust anti-SLAPPs legislation at EU level. The European Commission has committed to considering suitable anti-SLAPP measures as part of its upcoming European Democracy Action Plan. We call on you to get behind such measures in order to bring about concrete protections – including an anti-SLAPPs directive – for freedom of expression, access to information, and ultimately our democracies.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of our concerns. We look forward to your response and would be glad to schedule a meeting to discuss in more detail. 

Kind regards,

Index on Censorship

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

Article 19

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Northern Ireland MP’s attack on journalist is unacceptable and undermines media freedom

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship condemns Ian Paisely MP’s attack on News Letter journalist Sam McBride and calls on parliamentarians to uphold and support the tenets of media freedom.

“Everyone has the right to disagree with a journalist’s analysis, but attacks on a journalist’s character and on their family are completely unacceptable”, said Jessica Ní Mhainín, policy research and advocacy officer at Index on Censorship. “Elected representatives like Mr Paisely, should know that such attacks can undermine media freedom, which is essential to our democracy.”

“We have filed an alert with the Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the protection of journalism. We call on all public representatives to support in the creation of a safe and enabling environment for journalists to work without fear of attacks, intimidation or interference.”[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1568729859706-eab009cf-e0c8-6″ taxonomies=”6534″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Index and English Pen welcome decision by Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice in Loughinisland massacre journalists’ case


Update: Update: On 3 June 2019, the criminal investigation into Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey was dropped. The Durham Constabulary and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) announced that they were no longer investigating the two journalists.

Update: On 31 May the High Court in Belfast ruled that journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey acted lawfully, that police warrants against them were “inappropriate” and that all confiscated material be returned. Justice Morgan said that the material “does not indicate that the journalists acted in anything other than a perfectly proper manner”. “We consider that there’s no reason why, subject to suitable protections, for declining to return the material in their entirety to the journalists,” he added.

Index on Censorship and English PEN welcome the decision by the High Court in Northern Ireland to quash the warrants obtained by police to carry out raids on the homes and office of Belfast journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey.

Birney and McCaffrey produced a documentary No Stone Unturned which examines claims of state collusion in the murders of six men.

In evidence submitted to the High Court in Northern Ireland, Index on Censorship and English PEN said the raid on the homes and office of Birney and McCaffrey should be ruled unlawful.

Index on Censorship and English PEN filed a written submission to the court on May 17 after the court granted permission for the organisations to intervene. Index on Censorship and English PEN are represented by solicitor Darragh Mackin at Phoenix Law and barrister Jude Bunting at Doughty Street Chambers.

Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan said: “We are minded to quash the warrants on the basis that they were inappropriate, whatever the other arguments.”

A further hearing is set for 2pm on Friday 31 May which will determine what remedy to grant following the success of the judicial review. The remedies could include: quashing the warrant; ordering the return to the journalists of the documents seized by police; damages.

Index on Censorship magazine editor Rachael Jolley said: “We welcome the news that the Lord Chief Justice is minded to quash the warrants against Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. This is a significant step to ensure that press freedom is protected. English PEN and Index argued in a submission to the court that the conduct carried out in this case to raid the journalists’ houses and carry away documents and items that were not even related to the documentary was likely to have the effect of intimidating journalists throughout Northern Ireland and further afield.”

English PEN Director Antonia Byatt said: “We are very encouraged by this latest development in the case against Northern Irish journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, following our joint intervention in the case against them last week. We hope very much that Friday’s hearing will bring more good news. It is crucial that freedom of the press in the UK is protected, especially in the light of Jeremy Hunt’s current campaign for global media freedom.”

Mackin of Phoenix Law, said: “This is a victory for press freedom and common sense. The protection of journalistic material and sources is one of the basic conditions for freedom of expression. If journalists and their sources cannot rely on confidentiality, they may decide not to exchange information on sensitive matters of public interest for fear of the consequences. As a result, the vital “public watchdog” role of the press will be undermined and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable reporting may be adversely affected. This is why the approach of the police in this case was so obviously wrong. The decision to grant a warrant to obtain information from journalists, without giving them an opportunity to comment, had the purpose or effect of intimidating journalists the world over. The international significance of this claim is reflected in our client’s intervention.”

Index on Censorship is a London-based non-profit organisation that publishes work by censored writers and artists and campaigns against censorship worldwide. Since its founding in 1972, Index on Censorship has published some of the greatest names in literature in its award-winning quarterly magazine, including Samuel Beckett, Nadine Gordimer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arthur Miller and Kurt Vonnegut. It also has published some of the world’s best campaigning writers from Vaclav Havel to Elif Shafak. Contact: [email protected].

English PEN is a registered charity and membership organisation which campaigns in the United Kingdom and around the world to protect the freedom to share information and ideas through writing.PEN supports authors and journalists in the United Kingdom and internationally who are prosecuted, persecuted, detained, or imprisoned for exercising the right to freedom of expression. English PEN has a strong record of campaigning for legal reform throughout the United Kingdom.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1559659124565-535dd29e-e875-4″ taxonomies=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]