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Northern Ireland: Policing Board must launch inquiry following Chief Constable’s ‘utterly vague’ answers on covert surveillance of media

l-r: Daniel Holder, CAJ, Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International, and Barry McCaffrey, Journalist, and Ian McGuinness, NUJ Irish Organiser, address a press conference, Belfast – March 6 2024 © © Copyright: Kevin Cooper Photoline NUJ

Jon Boutcher’s answers on secret surveillance by the police against journalists and lawyers ‘fell short’

Board’s human rights advisor to further investigate police policy and practice but does not go far enough

In the interests of public confidence in policing and accountability the Board should initiate an inquiry

Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) have called for the Policing Board to hold an inquiry into covert surveillance by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) against journalists and lawyers.

The call comes following a report by the Chief Constable, Jon Boutcher, to the Policing Board, which Board members today criticised as ‘utterly vague’ and failing to provide adequate answers to questions they asked in September 2023.

Disclosures via the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) have revealed that the police have deployed covert surveillance on journalists on at least three occasions, in 2011, 2013 and 2018.

Amnesty and CAJ fear that the pattern of covert and intrusive surveillance by the police against journalists, and potentially others such as lawyers and activists, goes much further than the incidents revealed so far at the IPT.

The human rights organisations are now urging the Policing Board to exercise its formal powers, under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, to secure full disclosure by the PSNI.

Speaking following Thursday’s Policing Board meeting, Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Director, said:

“The Policing Board rightly criticised the Chief Constable’s answers to their questions.

“His report clearly fell short of their expectations in terms of transparency which is unacceptable and undermines the Board’s role of holding the police accountable.

“We welcome the Board’s request for further information from the Chief Constable and its decision to task the Board’s human rights advisor, John Wadham, to further investigate police policy and practice.

“However, given the inadequacy of the responses from the Chief Constable, and in the interests of public confidence in both policing and accountability of policing, the Board should now also move to exercise their powers to hold an inquiry into potentially unlawful use of covert surveillance powers.” 

Daniel Holder, Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), said:

“This is a real test for the present era of policing accountability both for the PSNI and the Policing Board with its duties to hold the police to account.

“Freedom of the press, including the fundamental of protecting sources, is a cornerstone of a democratic society protected by rights to freedom of expression under the ECHR.”

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