‘‘This case potentially could close down journalism,” said the Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen after her hearing at Laganside court in Belfast on 12 May. The judge, Tom Burgess, had told Breen’s lawyers he was provisionally minded to grant the order that would force her to disclose her sources in the Real IRA to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Breen said it was “disgraceful”, particularly as the police refused to make their case against her public. “What is the PSNI frightened of?” she demanded.
Breen’s case will progress to a full hearing on 29 May. Her lawyers will put forward the argument that the protection of sources is a journalist’s right, and that her life might be at risk if she hands over the information. Her case is not the first of its kind. Under the Terrorism Act 2000, police were given the authority to issue “production orders” for material or evidence if it is believed to be of “substantial value” for a terrorist investigation. Journalists are covered, to an extent, by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression. But it does not amount to total protection; “interference” with that right is allowed on the grounds of “national security, territorial integrity, public safety, and the prevention of disorder or crime”, among other things.
In a similar case at the end of June last year, a freelance investigative journalist, Shiv Malik, was forced to give Greater Manchester Police source material he had gathered on Hassan Butt, a former militant Islamist extremist. Malik, who has also written for the New Statesman, had been writing a book, Leaving al-Qaeda, which traced Butt’s early life and jihadi career. At first, the police (who turned up unannounced at Malik’s front door) had demanded he hand over all his material, but a judicial review narrowed the terms of the order so that it was evidence relating directly to Butt only (after he was mentioned by a defendant in a forthcoming criminal trial).
Malik is now helping Breen with her case. He hopes it will go to the high court and ultimately result in a change in the law. He is clearly still smarting from his own experience. “Sadly this is getting to be an annual event, where the police believe they can go and solve investigations by picking on journalists,” he says. Malik describes the habit of fishing for information from journalists as the “lowest form of police work”, a lazy way of gathering evidence. He says the graft that goes into investigative journalism, in particular terrorist investigations (expensive months of building relationships, the delicate handling of sources), often leaves a journalist’s life at risk. And when the police issue a production order, they simply succeed in putting the journalist in further jeopardy.
It is a view that the National Union of Journalists vehemently supports; the union is publicly backing Breen, and has arranged an online petition and a London rally that she will address on 26 May. Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary, outlined Breen’s potentially impossible position. “If an order is granted, then it will leave Suzanne Breen with a stark choice: if she doesn’t give up her notes she could be sent to prison. If she does, she could face the wrath of her sources – and in the context of the conflict she is covering, that would put her life at risk,” he said. Breen’s paper, the Sunday Tribune, is resolutely determined to defend her right to keep her sources confidential, stating in an editorial that “we will do so to the very highest level”.
Everyone involved sees the case as a matter of principle. Breen’s personal safety is clearly essential, but, besides that, a victory for the police would fundamentally alter the nature of journalism. As Dear puts it, “If the police seek to make an informant out of the press then the very future of independent journalism will be put at risk.”