Friday, 19 June 2009

A Great Day for Press Freedom and Suzanne Breen

© Joe ÓNéill 2009
Seamus Dooley, (Centre) Secretary, Irish National Union of Journalists, (Ireland) speaks with the press after the hearing, a smiling and happy Suzanne Breen, (Right) and Sunday Tribune Editor Noirin Hegharty. (Left)

Below is a statement from the Suzanne Breen support group
(See Archive for other articles on this subject)
Thursday, 18th June 2009

A great day for press freedom, Suzanne Breen is successful in protecting her sources by winning her case.

The National Union of Journalists has hailed the decision of a Northern Ireland court not to order journalist Suzanne Breen to hand over notes to the police “as a landmark victory for journalism and for civil liberties”.

At Belfast Recorders Court today, Judge Thomas Burgess refused an application which would have forced the Northern Editor of the Sunday Tribune to hand over notes, computer equipment and other material following publication of stories relating to the Real IRA.

NUJ President, James Doherty, praised the courage of Suzanne Breen and her editor, Noirin Hegarty, in standing up to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

James said: “At last week’s hearing Suzanne and Noirin proudly stood by the NUJ code of conduct and this ruling is justification of their stand. Journalists everywhere will join with me in congratulating them on the outcome.

“This is a victory not only for Suzanne, but for all journalists and the right to do our job free from fear or coercion. The Fourth Estate should never become a lapdog for a police state."

NUJ General Secretary, Jeremy Dear, said: “The PSNI has failed on this occasion, despite tactics aimed at intimidating the media. We now hope that the security forces will concentrate on tracking down criminals and those responsible for murder rather than targeting journalists.
"The use of anti-terror legislation to target journalists is a worrying international trend and this case is a welcome development in halting the erosion of civil liberties.”

Irish Secretary, Séamus Dooley, was present in court along with NUJ colleagues to support Ms Breen. Reacting to the judgment, Séamus said: “The NUJ welcomes this landmark judgment. No journalist should face the prospect of a prison sentence for doing their job in the public interest.
"Judge Burgess has recognised the central importance of the protection of journalistic sources and also accepted that a journalist who hands over confidential material could put their life at risk.”

In a ruling which took more than 30 minutes to read out, Judge Burgess ruled that requiring Ms Breen to hand over notes and other material would be a breach of her right to life under the European Convention.
Séamus added that the outcome of the case was “a landmark victory for journalism and civil liberties”.

Amnesty International has welcomed the decision in a Belfast court today by Judge Tom Burgess to refuse an application for a court order by the PSNI compelling Sunday Tribune Northern Editor Suzanne Breen to hand over material obtained in the course of her work as a journalist.

"This case had serious implications for the freedom of the press in the UK and Ireland," said Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International.
"Freedom of the press is an essential element of the right to freedom of expression, recognised under international law, and in general includes the principle that journalists must be able to protect their sources. We welcome today's decision but remain concerned at this attempt by the PSNI to use secret evidence and anti-terrorism legislation against a journalist."

The SDLP has welcomed the decision in Suzanne Breen’s court case which defended her right as a journalist to protect her sources.Speaking on behalf of the party, Alex Attwood MLA said:

“The SDLP welcomed today’s judgement that it was always a questionable approach for the police to force a journalist to hand over information, something which the police had never done in all the years of violence and conflict.

“The judgement is also highly important in confirming essential principles around the independence of journalists and the state’s duty to protect them in the course of their work.
“This is a good judgement for journalism, for the citizen and for the community.”

William Crawley of the BBC on his Blog Page poses an interesting question in light of the judgement: “The judgement is a clear advance in protecting a free press. But what of those journalists engaged in sensitive investigations who fear arrest and intimidation from state authorities, but who are not facing grave threats to their lives? It appears that judgment falls short of protecting journalists in that category: they will continue to take their chances in courts, as judges try to the balance "public interest" against journalistic confidentiality and the privacy of sources.”

Jon Slattery asked the questions in her blog: “The question that now has to be asked is why was Suzanne Breen put through this ordeal?

Why was Sally Murrer?

Why was Martin Bright?

Why was Robin Ackroyd?

Why was Bill Goodwin?

Why was Jeremy Warner?

These sources' cases go back more than 20 years. All the journalists won, eventually, sometimes after years of being dragged through the courts. When will the police and other authorities realise journalists will not give up their sources, even if they are threatened will jail?”

Roy Greenslade in his Guardian blog reflects on the judgement: “First, the good news. The judgment sets a precedent on behalf of journalists who receive confidential information from paramilitaries/ terrorists, whether in the form of an interview or when taking a phone call in which the caller is claiming responsibility for a bombing or shooting.
Second, the less good news. Though the judge evidently said he also had to consider the journalist's freedom of expression, it is not a definitive judgment on a journalist's right not to disclose all information received in confidence.

It represents a step on that path, but we still have to fight on for what is called in the US and Australia a "shield law" to protect all journalists from court action by authorities who use the courts in order to discover confidential journalistic sources.”

Alliance Leader David Ford has welcomed Suzanne Breen's court victory which means she is not compelled to hand over information on the Real IRA to police. David Ford said: "I wish to congratulate Suzanne and welcome the court's decision. This is a victory for the free press and for journalism as a profession. "There is no way it could have been considered acceptable for the courts to compel Suzanne Breen to release this information as her life may have been put at risk. Suzanne has been extremely courageous and has been vindicated in the principled stand she took."

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has today welcomed the decision of the court in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to dismiss the application of the Police Services of Northern Ireland (PSNI) about forcing the Sunday Tribune's journalist, Suzanne Breen, to reveal her source for the story she published on the murder of two British soldiers by the Real IRA."This is a historic victory in the journalists' fight for the protection of sources," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. "It is a milestone achievement for Suzanne and the National Union of Journalists in Great Britain and Ireland who have supported her throughout the process."

The IFJ supported the arguments of Suzanne that handing over the material for her story would not just infringe her right as a journalist to protect her source, but also put her at the serious risk of violence from the paramilitary group."This decision spares our colleague a real and serious risk to her safety," added White. "The PSNI sought to turn media into unwilling police informants at the expense of independent and safe journalism."

Henry McDonald argues in a piece for Index on Censorship that, “Journalists operating in Northern Ireland are relieved that Suzanne Breen has won her case. The decision has major implications for other reporters here.

This not only includes correspondents who are under pressure from the state, principally the PSNI, but also from the range of public inquiries into a number of past crimes in the Troubles.”

NUJ Web site:

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ):

NUJ London Freelance Branch:

Amnesty International:

Judge Thomas Burgess full judgement:

BBC News:

BBC William Crawley 16:47 PM, Thursday, 18 June 2009:

BBC “Reporter wins Real IRA notes case”:

RTE News: Gazette:
Times online David Sharrock, Ireland Correspondent:

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