Police in Northern Ireland has been accused of attacking press freedom by attempting to silence two journalists who worked on an award-winning documentary about one of the worst atrocities of The Troubles.
Human rights and journalists’ organizations expressed outrage on Friday afternoon after police attempted to prevent Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey from commenting on their case while on police bail.
The two journalists, who worked on 2017 documentary “No Stone Unturned” with Oscar-winning film-maker Alex Gibney, had their bail extended to September of this year on Friday.
They were first arrested in Belfast in August of last year.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Durham Constabulary, who were called in from Britain to investigate, tried to prevent the two men from commenting on the case when seeking an extension of their bail.
Alleged theft of documents from the PSNI, which has replaced the disbanded Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), led the PSNI to call in the Durham Constabulary from the United Kingdom to carry out an independent investigation.
This attempted gagging order was successfully opposed by lawyers for the two men, but it is seen as a sinister move at a time when bickering over Brexit and a hard border has put a renewed focus on cases of collusion between loyalist terrorists and members of the security forces.
Both journalists worked on Gibney’s documentary, which examined the massacre of six innocent soccer fans as they watched a World Cup game in a small Co Down pub in June 1994.
The slaughter of six innocent men cast a huge shadow over the celebrations which followed the Republic of Ireland’s shock 1-0 victory over Italy at the Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey.
“The arrest of two of the most widely-respected journalists in Northern Ireland has sent a shiver of fear through the region,” said Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International on Friday.
“Amnesty is deeply concerned that the arrests of Trevor and Barry, and the seizure of documents and computer equipment, put 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.”
The documentary revealed new evidence about the massacre at the Heights Bar in which Adrian Rogan (aged 34), Patrick O’Hare (35), Eamon Byrne (39), Malcolm Jenkinson (53) Daniel McCreanor (59) and Barney Greene (87) lost their lives.
All six men were sitting with their backs to the door, watching the football game in the rural Heights Bar, when two gunmen from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) burst in and sprayed the premises with bullets.
Most of Ireland came to a standstill for the big game and IrishCentral founder Niall O’Dowd told Gibney that the game against Italy felt like a home game, because so many Irish people from all over the US had traveled to New Jersey to cheer on the team in green.
But the celebrations which followed the historic 1-0 win turned to despair all across Ireland when news spread about the sectarian massacre which occurred in the Co Down pub.
Birney and McCaffrey were arrested last August after helping to unearth new evidence about the 1994 Loughinisland massacre for Gibney’s documentary.
They were arrested on August 31 in connection with an alleged breach of the Official Secrets Act, relating to confidential documents about the police investigation of the murder of the six innocent men.
An estimated 100 police officers raided the journalists’ homes and offices, seizing documents and computers, which the men are fighting to have returned.
A 2016 PSNI report found that there had been collusion between the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Volunteer Force killers and that the subsequent police investigation had been undermined by a desire to protect those responsible for the crime.
Yesterday’s attempt to silence the journalists was described as a farce by Niall Murphy and John Finucane, the solicitors for the two men.
“The police today applied for an additional bail condition, which would seek to restrict both Trevor and Barry from making public comment in relation to this case. That application was farcical and was subsequently refused,” said Murphy.
Murphy added that it was “ridiculous, a farce, and malicious” that the men had been arrested for attempting to tell the truth about a massacre.
Seamus Dooley of the National Union of Journalists said the journalists’ only crime was to search for truth and justice: “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.
"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."
The release of “No Stone Unturned” in November 2017 gave huge hope to the bereaved families. They called for arrests, prosecutions, and accountability, as nobody has ever been charged in relation to the atrocity.
The film claimed that RUC officers were aware of the UVF plans to kill; that evidence, including the killers’ getaway car, had been destroyed; and that suspects were given advance warnings that they were about to be interviewed about the killings.
On Friday, Amnesty International launched an online campaign to support the two journalists allowing people around the world to send messages of solidarity and raise concerns regarding freedom of the press in Northern Ireland.
Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award at the Tramline, Dublin, in October 2018. Find him on Facebook or Twitter here. Visit his website here - CiaranTierney.com. A former newspaper journalist, he is seeking new opportunities in a digital world.