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N. Ireland human rights watchdog condemns new police power to seize journalists' records

N. Ireland human rights watchdog condemns new police power to seize journalists' records

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and journalist leaders on Wednesday condemned legislation granting police the power to seize reporters' records as reckless and liable to be used to suppress their investigative work.
The provision, contained in a police powers bill enacted March 21, goes far beyond powers given to police agencies in the Republic of Ireland or Britain. The Northern Ireland law permits police to seize journalists' computers, other electronic records, notepads and other documents and hold them for up to 96 hours.
"The power to seize documents must not be abused, and we will be monitoring its use to ensure that the right to search is exercised only where there are grounds for suspicion," said Monica McWilliams, chief commissioner of the government-appointed commission.
The new law states that police with a search warrant can seize reporters' records and examine them if they suspect the journalist has information on a crime that either has been, or might be, committed. But journalists say the police's true motive in such cases could be to harm a reporter who has published material that embarrassed the police.
"Journalists will certainly have to take greater care in handling sensitive information. It could have an impact on the ability to secure confidential information and on legitimate investigative journalism," said Seamus Dooley, secretary of the Irish chapter of the National Union of Journalists.
Dooley said European human rights law should guarantee journalists' right to privacy and to freedom of expression, but this "has been ignored in the drafting of this order."
The human rights commission and union timed their statement for World Press Freedom Day, which is Thursday.
Northern Ireland police have targeted two prominent investigative journalists in Belfast in the past decade: Ed Moloney, who subsequently relocated to New York to write a definitive account of the Irish Republican Army, and Liam Clarke, the veteran Ireland correspondent of a British newspaper, The Sunday Times.
Moloney narrowly avoided jail in 1999 after refusing to hand over his notes on an interview with a Protestant outlaw who allegedly colluded with police to kill a Catholic lawyer. Moloney argued it would undermine his professional credibility, and potentially place his life in danger, if he was seen to help police at the expense of a paramilitary source.
Clarke and his wife, journalist Kathryn Johnston, were arrested in May 2003 and the contents of their home office seized by detectives probing the identity of one of their police sources. Clarke and Johnston _ who had published a book that printed secret, leaked transcripts of telephone conversations between British government and Sinn Fein officials _ faced no subsequent charges.


Updated : 2021-04-22 02:37 GMT+08:00