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N Ireland politician and journalist face jail prospect

A politician and a journalist in Northern Ireland are today both facing the prospect of jail for refusing to disclose sources to the authorities.

The politician, Ian Paisley Jr, was yesterday served with papers to appear in Belfast’s High Court today for “contempt” for refusing to name a prison officer. The officer had leaked information that the NI Prison Service employed people to destroy over 5,000 files shortly after Billy Wright was shot dead at the Maze Prison in 1997. The circumstances of the murder which have led many to believe that there was collusion between the State and the republican prisoners who carried out the murder of the loyalist paramiltary leader and the government was forced to establish an inquiry into the death.

Now Mr Paisley has been pursued through the courts by the Billy Wright Inquiry, set up by the Government and operated under the controversial Inquiries Act, which Amnesty believes does not conform with international human rights standards.

Meanwhile, just metres away in a courtroom in Laganside Courts, Suzanne Breen, Northern Editor of the Sunday Tribune will be trying to mount a defence of her right to non-disclosure of her sources to the PSNI. This case relates to newspaper reports she wrote regarding the Real IRA in the wake of the killings of soldiers Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar at Massereene Barracks in Antrim in March by that organisation. The police have used the Terrorism Act in an attempt to force disclosure of names and other information by the journalist; the Act enabling them to use secret evidence in court which has not been disclosed to Ms Breen or her defence.

Just yesterday the Law Lords unanimously found that that reliance on secret evidence denies a fair trial to terrorism suspects subject to control orders, with Lord Philips declaring Philips: "A trial procedure can never be considered fair if a party to it is kept in ignorance of the case against him."

Hear, hear. But now we have the spectacle in Northern Ireland of counter-terrorism legislation and secret evidence being used against a journalist.

Amnesty International has written to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward outlining our serious concerns in the Breen case, noting the additional freedom of expression protection afforded to journalists under international law allows them to protect sources except in exceptional circumstances, which do not appear to exist in this case. I’m doing interviews on a range of local stations in the morning explaining why the Breen case may amount to a violation of her human rights and undermines the public interest in having a free press. (There's more on the Breen case over on the Keith Belfast blog.)

These two cases and the personalities and professions involved may be different but, arguably, the principle at stake is the same.

Both cases have the potential to create a chilling effect on politicians and journalists in Northern Ireland.

Politicians may be a little more fearful to facilitate whistle-blowing. Journalists may be a little less willing to engage in investigations which challenge authority.

And the public in Northern Ireland may be left with a State that is a litte less accountable, in a place where we already know that dark deeds have been plotted and covered up for years.

I also micro-blog on Twitter.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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