Two Belfast-based journalists arrested over the alleged theft of a document from the office of the North’s Police Ombudsman have complained that police tried to “gag” them over what they could say about the case.
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, who made a documentary about the 1994 Loughinisland killings by members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, were questioned again by police in Belfast on Friday.
They have been on police bail since last year. Solicitors Niall Murphy for Mr Birney and John Finucane for Mr McCaffrey sought to have the case dropped, but they were instead questioned for three hours.
They must return for further questioning in September. Durham Constabulary is in charge of the investigation, but the journalists were questioned by PSNI officers on Friday, taking instructions from Durham.
“They tried to impose two conditions on us: one that we were not to talk publicly about the case and, two, that we were not to approach witnesses,” said Mr Birney.
“After our legal team raised concern they dropped condition one but they stuck to condition two,” he said, adding that they had no interest in approaching witnesses “given that one of them is the chief suspect”.
Durham Constabulary last night, responding to The Irish Times, denied charges that it was trying to gag the journalists, saying it had wanted to ensure that shared witness statements were not revealed publicly.
“We simply would not wish to see our investigation undermined by having witness statements inappropriately disclosed on social media,” said the constabulary’s spokesman.
The two journalists were arrested last August, when their homes and offices were searched, following the broadcast of their documentary about the Loughinisland killings, No Stone Unturned.
The film investigated the killings of six men in the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, Co Down, as they watched a World Cup game between the Republic of Ireland and Italy, and alleged that police collusion had taken place.
The journalists were detained over the alleged theft of confidential material from the offices of the Police Ombudsman relating to the murders.
Mr Birney queried why police were persisting with the case. “It is all rather strange and weird; it is trying to bolt the door after the horse has bolted.”
On the condition about not approaching witnesses, Mr Birney said: “There are no witnesses to a theft because there was no theft. We have not stolen anything and we are not guilty of stealing anything.”
In May the Belfast High Court is due to hear a challenge from Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey about the legality of search warrants issued during the investigation.
The National Union of Journalists assistant general secretary Séamus Dooley said Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey were "being punished because they have exposed brutal human rights abuses".
Calling for “legal threats, harassment and intimidation” to stop, he said: “A free press is critical to the health of democracy and freedom of expression is a fundamental human right.”
Amnesty's Northern Ireland programme director Patrick Corrigan said the arrests of "two of the most widely respected journalists in Northern Ireland has sent a shiver of fear through the region".
“When 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,” he said.