An attempt by police to impose “draconian” bail conditions that would have gagged two Northern Irish journalists has been condemned as a violation of “basic media freedoms”.
Trevor Birney (pictured, right) and Barry McCaffrey have had their police bail extended by six months to September, bringing it to a year in total, which the National Union of Journalists has described as a “travesty”.
The pair made 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned about the 1994 Loughinisland massacre, in which they broke new ground by publicly naming the alleged suspects for the first time.
The journalists were initially arrested in Belfast in August over the alleged theft of confidential material from the offices of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in connection with the documentary.
A police press release issued at the time said the investigation was triggered when the Ombudsman reported the theft to police, but the Ombudsman’s office has since said it “did not make a complaint of theft” to police.
On Friday the journalists’ pre-charge bail was extended. Police also tried, but failed, to impose new bail conditions stopping them from discussing aspects of the case in public.
Birney described it as a “dark escalation” in the case and a “clear attempt at suppression of press freedom”, adding the proposed bail conditions were “draconian”.
His solicitor, Niall Murphy, who successfully opposed the proposed conditions alongside a representative for McCaffrey, told the press the application “to restrict both Trevor and Barry from making public comment in relation to this case” was farcical and preposterous.
He added: “The position that currently stands is that they have been bailed now for a further six months, so that will 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 that police have taken investigative action arising from this film and have arrested the two people that seek to tell the truth about the circumstances of the atrocity in Loughinisland is a farce and it’s a malicious farce.”
A spokesperson for Durham Constabulary, which is conducting the investigation on behalf of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, denied on Friday that it had attempted to stop Birney or McCaffrey from talking about their case.
“This investigation will continue and we are anxious that it remains as open and transparent as possible,” they 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.”
The National Union of Journalists, of which Birney and McCaffrey are both members, condemned what it described as an attempt by the police to restrict their freedom by commenting on their case while on bail.
Seamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary, said: “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. 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.”
He added: “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.”
Human rights organisation Amnesty International launched a campaign in support of Birney and McCaffrey on Friday which has already received more than 11,200 signatures.
Patrick Corrigan, the group’s Northern Ireland programme director, said: “Amnesty is deeply concerned that the arrests of Trevor and Barry, and the seizure of documents and computer equipment, puts press freedom at risk in Northern Ireland.
“The arrest 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.”
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said it remained “extremely concerned” by Birney and McCaffrey’s case and that the “charges against them should be immediately dropped and their journalistic materials returned”.
“At 40th out of 180 countries in our World Press Freedom Index, the UK must do better to ensure press freedom is respected and protected in policy and practice,” the group added on Twitter.
Ulster Volunteer Force gunmen opened fire inside the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, County Down, in June 1994, murdering six football fans who had gathered to watch the Republic of Ireland play in the World Cup.
Picture: Rebecca Black/PA Wire