Breen gets time to defend case
A judge in Northern Ireland said today he was provisionally minded to grant a police order compelling a journalist to hand over information about the Real IRA murders of two British soldiers.
Belfast Recorder Tom Burgess told the defence team of Sunday TribuneNorthern Editor Suzanne Breen that it was now up to them to present him with legal argument that would change his initial opinion.
He also said that police evidence indicating that information held by Ms Breen was relevant to the investigation would remain undisclosed to the court.
The judge said if facts relayed to him by the Police Service of Northern Ireland were made public, it could interfere with the live investigation into the murders of Sappers Mark Quinsey (23) and Patrick Azinkar (21) outside an army base in Antrim in March.
Ms Breen received a call from someone in the Real IRA claiming responsibility for the shootings.
As well as phone records relating to the claim, the police also want information connected to the interview the journalist carried out with a senior Real IRA representative.
In it, the dissident group admitted murdering Denis Donaldson, the senior Sinn Féin official who was exposed as an MI5 informer. Mr Donaldson was shot dead more than three years ago at a Co Donegal hideaway where he had set up home after being unmasked.
Judge Burgess today said the PSNI application under terror legislation had cleared the first hurdle in that the case was terror related and that the information held by Ms Breen could be of value to detectives investigating it.
He gave the journalist’s defence lawyers one week to come up with any legal arguments as to why he should not grant the order.
Judge Burgess said these could relate to general issues of press freedom and also more personal matters, such as whether handing the information over would put the reporter’s life at risk.
He said while he was provisionally of a mind to grant the police application that did not mean he definitely would: “That’s where I am at the minute,” he told Ms Breen’s barrister.
“Where I will be after I have heard your argument could be a completely different place altogether.”
He added: “I am totally open-minded as to where this is going."
The journalist’s lawyer Peter Girvan asked how he was supposed to offer up a legal defence if he could not see the police case against his client.
“The difficulty my client is faced with is she has a vacuum - there is no information for her to respond to.”
The judge said his determination of the police evidence, which he heard last Friday, would be placed in a sealed envelope and would be available to any court of appeal if the case ever reached that stage.
“I’m not trying to hide behind anything,” the judge said. “I’m happy for anybody [in respect of appeal court judges] to look at the reasons why I’ve come to the decision I have.”
After the judge received skeleton argument from the respondent and the applicant he will then progress the case to a full hearing.
Ms Breen has refused to comply with police requests made formally to her 11 days ago to hand over the information, insisting she has to protect her sources. Outside court she condemned the decision not to disclose the police case.
“I think it is quite disgraceful that we are never perhaps during this case getting to hear the police evidence that has brought us to court,” she said.
“We are fighting and challenging the case and we don’t know the details of the police case against us.
“It puts us in a very difficult position. What is the PSNI frightened of?
“Why will they not give us the details of the case?
“It’s very, very hard to mount a challenge to the case when you don’t know the details of the case against you,” she added.
“I think it is quite disgraceful this is happening in Northern Ireland in 2009 when there is meant to be a new dispensation.”
Ms Breen was flanked by supporters and representatives from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which is backing her right to protect her sources.
She went on to explain what her defence would be based on. “Our arguments will be twofold,” she said.
“It will be based on the protection of sources, the journalist’s right to confidentiality, it’s part of the NUJ code of conduct. And it will also be based on the risk to my life, basically were I to comply with the police’s demands, then in terms of an organisation like the Real IRA.”
She said the case could have implications for the entire profession of journalism as it could interfere with the reporter’s ability to protect any type of source in any story.
“This case potentially could close down journalism,” she said.