The arrest of two Northern Irish journalists who embarrassed police by obtaining documents relating to a mass murder was "more associated with a police state than with a liberal democracy,” Belfast’s high court has heard.
Police raided the homes and offices of award-winning journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey last August over the alleged theft of a police watchdog report.
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The unredacted document was obtained as part of the pair's investigation into the murders of six Catholic men by masked gunmen in a pub in Loughinisland, Co Down, in 1994.
Their work named alleged murderers and highlighted collusion between the police and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), reports the Guardian.
Despite widespread claims authorities know the identities of the killers - no one has ever been convicted of the murders.
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The court also heard that the police officer responsible for the arrests believed lives had been “put in danger for merely having the misfortune of being involved in terrorist atrocities at whatever level.”
"Warped mindset" of police
Barry Macdonald, a representative for one of the journalists, described the officer’s stance as “a staggering proposition” and evidence of the “warped mindset” of the police officer driving the process.
He said that investigative journalists and their sources were supposed to be protected from such intrusion.
“This operation sets off alarm bells and flashing blue lights amongst media organizations,” he said.
“It set off alarm bells because of the grave implications for freedom of the press.”
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He added that the judge who granted the search warrant did not have issues surrounding the protection of journalistic sources properly in mind.
“The judge effectively unfortunately allowed himself to be used by a single-minded police officer who had his own agenda.”
The case that has gained global attention due to concerns over its impact on press freedom in Britain.
Birney and McCaffrey’s work was used in the 2017 movie No Stone Unturned, directed by the Oscar winner Alex Gibney.
He claimed there was no risk to suspects named in the documentary since their names had been in the public domain for years and they had refused to take up an offer from filmmakers to respond.
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Officers appeared to search every desk in the journalists’ office and take material unrelated to the Loughinisland massacre, including one surrounding alleged clerical child sex abuse, Macdonald said.
Judicial review proceedings have been brought in an attempt to have the warrants declared unlawful.
Police have given an undertaking not to examine any of the documents and computer equipment pending the outcome of the legal action.
The pair are out on bail and awaiting a charge since last August but are unable to travel across international borders without giving police three days’ notice.
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