Raids on the homes and offices of two Belfast journalists were an “outrage” more akin to a police state than a liberal democracy, the high court in Belfast heard on Tuesday.
Judges were told the operation which led to the arrest of Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey was aimed at discovering sources and intimidating whistleblowers.
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey are challenging the legality of the search warrants obtained to carry out the trawls as part of an investigation into the suspected theft of confidential documents from the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman’s Office.
The case is connected to the murders of six Catholic men at Loughinisland, Co Down in June 1994. UVF gunmen opened fire in a village pub as their victims watched a World Cup football match.
The award-winning investigative journalists were involved in the documentary film No Stone Unturned, which examined the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s handling of the Loughinisland atrocity.
In August last year they were detained, questioned and released during an operation undertaken by detectives from Durham Constabulary, supported by PSNI officers. Judicial review proceedings have been brought in a bid 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.
Barry Macdonald QC, for Mr Birney and documentary maker Fine Point Films, told the court the case has “set off alarm bells” among media organisations in Britain, Ireland and the United States who have intervened in support of the journalists.
“This application arises from a police search operation that was nothing less than outrageous,” he said. “Under cover of a warrant that was obtained without giving the applicants the opportunity to be heard, and which should never have been granted, the police raided homes and business premises of two journalists and a film company.
“They rifled through all their confidential files, accessed literally millions of documents, and then seized computers, phones, media storage devices and documentary materials which they still retain — most of them completely unrelated to the pretext on which the search was carried out.”
Counsel contended: “This was the kind of operation associated more with a police state than with a liberal democracy that does have in place laws designed to protect investigative journalists and their sources from this kind of intrusion.
“Those laws are in place in order that investigative journalists can perform their proper function of holding the state to account.”
Conservative MP David Davis was among those who attended court to back the case being made for press freedom.
Before the hearing got underway, he said the journalists’ cause was “so important it should be known throughout the whole of the UK and the rest of the world”.
In court it was claimed that the raids could have grave implications for the ability of the press to continue to expose wrongdoing.
Lord Chief Justice Morgan, Lord Justice Treacy and Mrs Justice Keegan heard police were made aware the film was being made, with the intention of naming suspects whose identities have been in the public domain for more than two decades. With no attempt made to seek a court injunction to stop the documentary, suspects were also notified and offered an opportunity to respond.
The case continues.