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Perils of reporting on terrorism

11 June 09 19:30 GMT

By Mark Simpson
Ireland correspondent, BBC News

A Northern Ireland journalist is facing jail over her refusal to give police her notes linked to stories about the Real IRA.

Legal conflict between journalists and detectives in Northern Ireland goes back to the start of the Troubles.

In 1971, BBC reporter Bernard Falk spent time in Belfast's Crumlin Road jail rather than reveal any details about an IRA spokesman he interviewed.

The paramilitary had appeared on TV in silhouette, back to camera, to conceal his identity.

Falk was later asked by the authorities to say whether a man accused of being a member of the IRA was the same man he interviewed.

Patrick Leo Martin faced a charge of IRA membership under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) of 1967.

Falk was effectively asked to be a witness, rather a journalist, and refused to co-operate.

His legal team argued that a right of journalistic privilege should exist. However, no such law was - or is - in place, and Falk ended up behind bars.

One of his BBC colleagues at the time, Don Anderson, wrote recently in the Belfast Telegraph about picking him up after he served his four-day sentence.

He remembered: "When Falk emerged from the gates of Crumlin Road prison I met him and took him off for breakfast. He never did reveal his sources, not even privately to me.

"Free, unfettered journalism is a bulwark of our democracy and journalistic privilege needs to be enshrined in law.

"Until it is, the courts, however sympathetic, can do little to protect journalists who can only protect themselves by staying silent."

But should journalists be above the law? Especially if they have information which could potentially be useful to detectives investigating a murder?

What about the rights of the families of victims to obtain justice?

Journalistic integrity

That is the issue at the heart of the Suzanne Breen case.

The northern editor of Sunday Tribune was the journalist who took the call from the Real IRA when they admitted killing two soldiers in Antrim in March.

Ms Breen received the claim of responsibility in a call to her mobile telephone and then shared the information with every media outlet in the UK and Ireland.

What the police are interested in is any information about the caller - his or her accent, their age and any other clues as to their identity.

Ms Breen feels to answer those questions would compromise her journalistic integrity - and her safety.

She has been told by a third party that she would be under threat from the Real IRA if she co-operated with the police.

It is a risk she is not prepared to take, especially as she has reason to believe her partner and her 14-month-old daughter could also be targets.

On the night the Real IRA killed two soldiers in Antrim, they also shot at two pizza delivery men. So the journalist believes they would have no hesitation harming her family.

Whether that would happen is unlikely to be tested. Ms Breen has made it clear there are absolutely no circumstances in which she will hand over the information the police want.

It could mean she will face a jail sentence of up to five years.

Crumlin Road prison is now closed, and Northern Ireland is a much changed place, but the legal battles between the media and the police continue.

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