THE Policing Board must investigate police surveillance of journalists following revelations that the PSNI accessed a prominent reporter’s phone, human rights’ organisations have said.
Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) have jointly written to the Policing Board, asking it to launch an investigation.
Barry McCaffrey, a former senior journalist with The Detail, said he was alarmed to learn that his phone was compromised over a period in 2013 while he was investigating allegations that a senior PSNI employee was in receipt of payments from a private company.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), an independent judicial body which deals with police surveillance concerns, has been sitting in secret for more than two years to look at the case.
It will hear a complaint from Mr McCaffrey and The Detail editor Trevor Birney at a hearing later this year.
Mr McCaffrey’s phone was accessed years before he and Mr Birney were falsely arrested in August 2018 over their documentary No Stone Unturned into the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) murder of six Catholic men in Loughinisland, Co Down, in June 1994.
The High Court in Belfast later found that the warrant issued for searches of the documentary makers’ homes and offices and the seizing of journalistic material was unlawful.
The investigation into the journalists was dropped with substantial damages paid to both men and a public apology by PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne.
As a result of the case, legal counsel for the journalists asked the IPT about any invasive action taken against them by the PSNI, Durham Constabulary and the intelligence services during the No Stone Unturned investigation.
It has since emerged Mr McCaffrey's phone was accessed by the PSNI in 2013.
Patrick Corrigan, from Amnesty International Northern Ireland, said police have “serious questions to answer about the secret surveillance of journalists in Northern Ireland”.
“Snooping on a journalist’s phone is potentially a serious breach of human rights,” he said.
“But let’s not fool ourselves – this news comes as little surprise. The PSNI has a terrible track record when it comes to freedom of the press.
“Time and again the courts have found that police have overstepped the mark in breaching the human rights of journalists – and this appears to be another such case.
“The key question is how many other cases are there of targeted surveillance of journalists or other human rights defenders by the PSNI?
“The Policing Board has a statutory duty to ensure PSNI compliance with the Human Rights Act.
“Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice have jointly written to the Policing Board today to ask them to conduct a thorough investigation of the PSNI’s use of secret surveillance against journalists and other human rights defenders in Northern Ireland.
“The pattern of treating journalists as criminal suspects must end.”
CAJ director Daniel Holder questioned if other journalists had also been targeted.
“It would be particularly alarming if this case is indicative of a broader pattern of police use of surveillance powers against journalists,” he said.
“This is also a test of our oversight bodies as to whether they can effectively hold the police to account for use of such powers.”
Conservative MP David Davis said the revelation was “deeply troubling”.
“Press freedom is at the core of our democratic system, and it must be protected absolutely,” he said.
SDLP MP Claire Hanna said she planned to raise the issue in the House of Commons after the summer recess.
“The PSNI’s approach to this was wildly over the top,” she said.
“In the interests of transparency and good governance journalists need to be able to operate freely.
“This prompts wider questions about surveillance techniques by the PSNI.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt, a member of the Policing Board, said he will discuss the case with the Chief Constable and his senior team when board meetings resume in September.
Mr Nesbitt said in the absence of an official opposition at Stormont “which we have had for less than a year since the 1998 Agreement, when Stormont was functioning”, or a revising chamber like the House of Lords or Seanad Éireann, the media “has been the only consistent body exercising a challenge function to the devolved institutions, including the police”.
“On that basis, any interference or illegal scrutiny of journalists is exceptionally unwelcome and to be condemned,” he said.
“Beyond that is the obvious question of where this sits on the spectrum of ‘one off’ through to ‘standard operating practice’.
“The concern is that it has happened more than once and still happens.
“Questions will be asked.”
Alliance MLA Nuala McAllister, who is also a member of the Policing Board, said she will raise the issue with senior PSNI officers.
"As an investigation is underway we need to let it run its course but we have major concerns over this issue,” she said.
“We will be asking questions to PSNI leadership at the Policing Board about if or how widespread this issue was and to ensure there is extensive scrutiny of the past and current practices in relation to this matter.
"It is entirely unacceptable if the PSNI accessed these phone records without permission being granted and we await the findings of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in their investigation."
Sinn Féin MLA and Policing Board member Linda Dillon said: “Investigative journalist Barry McCaffrey was vindicated by the courts in 2020 and was found to have acted properly while researching for a documentary into the Loughinisland massacre.
“His arrest was unlawful and he continues to legally challenge the removal of journalistic material at that time.
“Freedom of the press and the rights of journalists to do their job must be fully upheld.”
DUP MLA and Policing Board member Trevor Clarke said: "The police have a duty to uphold the law."
"If the police are then proven to have broken the law then that’s incredibly serious and damaging for democracy," he said.
"Action must be taken to ensure there are protocols in place to guard against a similar situation developing in the future.
"We all have a duty to protect the integrity of the police and the freedom of the press."
A spokeswoman for the Policing Board said: "The correspondence from Amnesty will be considered at the September board meeting."
She added that the board's human rights advisor, John Wadham, will provide an update on the case at the September meeting.