Why The Case Of Journalists Trevor Birney And Barry McCaffrey Should Concern Us All

When journalists, rather than those responsible for the mass shooting of civilians, find themselves behind bars, we should all be concerned. And when it is happening in our own country, we need to speak out.
Brian Lawless - PA Images via Getty Images

When journalists who expose police wrongdoing wake up to their homes being raided by armed police, we should be extremely concerned. When it happens in the UK, we should be shouting our protests from the rooftops.

On the night of 18 June 1994, the normally sleepy Heights Bar in Loughinisland in rural Northern Ireland was busier than usual. Pub regulars were watching the much-anticipated Ireland vs Italy World Cup match live from New York. Some would not live to see the end of the game.

With Ireland 1-0 up and the second half underway underway, two men in boiler suits, their faces hidden behind balaclavas, suddenly entered the tiny pub and strafed those inside with automatic gunfire.

When the shooting stopped, six men were dead and five more lay seriously injured. The cold-blooded killings sent shockwaves around the world. Messages of condolence came from the Pope, the Queen and President Bill Clinton.

The police told grieving families of the victims that they would leave “no stone unturned” in their pursuit of the loyalist paramilitary killers. That was a lie.

In 2016, a report by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland found that members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) had, in fact, colluded with the killers and helped them escape justice.

Despite the police knowing who the suspects were from the start – and the getaway vehicle, a gun and a bag of balaclavas all being found – nobody was ever charged.

So, while the killers have never been caught, 25 years on from the Loughinisland massacre, two journalists – Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey – now find themselves arrested after helping expose police complicity in the case.

The pair contributed to a 2017 documentary about the massacre, No Stone Unturned, made by Oscar-winning producer Alex Gibney.

Birney and McCaffrey, two of Northern Ireland’s most widely-respected journalists, were arrested in August last year, their homes and offices raided, and their computers and documents seized, in an elaborate operation involving up to 100 armed police officers.

While police in Northern Ireland have failed to bring the killers to justice, they have now launched an investigation into how documents from the Police Ombudsman’s office allegedly ended up in the hands of journalists investigating police wrong-doing.

The two journalists could face charges under the Official Secrets Act and potential imprisonment. Their arrests have provoked widespread concern among the media and human rights organisations.

This morning, Birney and McCaffrey will go to Belfast’s High Court to challenge the lawfulness of the armed police raids on their homes.

The case is crucial for press freedom, not just in Northern Ireland, but throughout the UK.

Journalists have a legal right to protect their sources. It is a key tenet of their profession, and underpins their ability to exercise their freedom of expression.

Unless the police can demonstrate that the arrests and seizure of the journalists’ materials were reasonable, proportionate and necessary in a democratic society, their actions amount to an assault on the freedom of the press.

Around the world, from Myanmar to Turkey, Amnesty International is always concerned at the arrest of journalists, particularly when it involves those who specialise in investigating human rights violations.

A free press is the cornerstone of a free country and essential in holding the powerful to account.

When journalists, rather than those responsible for the mass shooting of civilians, find themselves behind bars, we should all be concerned.

And when it is happening in our own country, we need to speak out.

Patrick Corrigan is the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK. You can send a message of solidarity to Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey via Amnesty International.


What's Hot