Suzanne Breen: 'a victory for journalism'
"Hopefully this will set a precedent. I hope no other journalist will find themselves hauled before the court." Suzanne Breen's response to the Belfast High Court's decision that she is not required to hand over her interview notes to the police. Judge Tom Burgess ruled that Suzanne Breen's right to life outweighed any other public interest and accepted that the Sunday Tribune's northern editor would be in grave danger from dissident Republicans if she were forced to hand over notes relating to Real IRA involvement in the murder of two British soldiers.
Judge Burgess accepted:
(a) That the concept of confidentiality for journalists protecting their sources is recognised in law, and specifically under the 2000 Act and Article 10 of the Convention;
(b) That given the objectives of this application that the material sought would be such as would be regarded as covered by that obligation of confidentiality which Ms Breen has confirmed under oath exists in respect of her relationship with this organisation and the spokesman of this organisation;
(c) That while there may well be a risk of involving oneself with such an organisation in any way, that risk would be greatly increased by any breach of that undertaking;
(d) That there is objective evidence that we are dealing with a ruthless and murderous group of people who would regard any handing over of any information in the possession of Ms Breen over and above the publication of their claim for responsibility, as exposing her to be treated as a legitimate target with the murderous consequences that could and may well follow from that.
In the end he ruled: "In weighing this balance I have decided that for the reasons that I have stated, namely the nature of this organisation, its declared intentions and the callousness with which it will carry out its threats not least in the protection of itself, this organisation has the capacity to carry out such threats; is willing to carry out such actions; and, in my opinion, given the argument of the PSNI that the material in the hands of Ms Breen is likely to be of substantial value to them in their investigation, that I must place very considerable weight on that public interest in the protection of life, and the very specific personal interest of Ms Breen as regards her life and that of her family."
The National Union of Journalists described the result as "a victory for journalism and for civil liberties".
The judgement is a clear advance in protecting a free press. But what of those journalists engaged in sensitive investigations who fear arrest and intimidation from state authorities, but who are not facing grave threats to their lives? It appears that this judgment falls short of protecting journalists in that category: they will continue to take their chances in courts, as judges try to the balance "public interest" against journalistic confidentiality and the privacy of sources. Read the full judgment here.