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Threats to Northern Irish journalists on the rise

A burnt out car blocks Dee Street in east Belfast in January. Threats against journalists have increased since a wave of protests early this year. (Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)

The Police Service of Northern Ireland has informed a Belfast-based reporter that dissident republican groups, opposed to the peace process, have issued a death threat against her, the British National Union of Journalists said this week. The threat came after the journalist published a story in a local Sunday newspaper claiming an Irish republican group was protecting two alleged pedophiles in its ranks, according to the Guardian. The National Union of Journalists has demanded the death threat to be withdrawn.

"A free press is fundamental to a democratic society and journalists are enduring threats from both sides of the sectarian divide. The NUJ calls on those who have made the threat to make no such threats in future," said Nicola Coleman, NUJ Irish representative, in a statement. Contacted by CPJ, the Police Service of Northern Ireland declined to provide any details. "It is standard practice when we receive information about threats against individual journalists that we inform them accordingly," a spokeswoman for the police force said.

The incident is the latest in a series of episodes in which reporters in Northern Ireland are subject to intimidation by small, outlawed groups--both Irish republicans and loyalists to the British crown--accused of perpetuating low-intensity violence in the region. According to local media, two other journalists received death threats last month from loyalist paramilitaries, after members of the vigilante group Ulster Volunteer Force issued warnings about several reporters. Their identities were not revealed, as with the latest case, out of security concerns. News reports said the recent death threat relates to the anti-peace process group Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH), a small but active armed group accused of a number of bomb attacks in the Greater Belfast area.

"Police intelligence routinely monitors chat among paramilitary groups, and they have a policy to warn journalists if a serious threat is identified," Paul Connolly, managing editor of the Belfast Telegraph Group told CPJ. In January, during loyalist protests about the British union flag being removed from Belfast City Hall, the Northern Irish police intercepted a letter containing a bullet addressed to a reporter who had been covering the loyalist protests. The decision by the local council--where nationalist, unionist, and bipartisan parties are represented--to limit the display of the flag to official holidays triggered weeks of loyalist protests late last year and early in 2013.

CPJ documented a number of attacks in December. In one case, a pipe bomb was left at the door of the home of freelance press photographer Mark Pearce. A few days earlier, Adrian Rutherford, a reporter with the leading daily Belfast Telegraph, was attacked by a gang while covering loyalist protests in East Belfast. And earlier that month, a Belfast-based Associated Press photographer, Peter Morrison, was injured  in a violent clash between police and demonstrators, allegedly after being hit by police batons. The case has been referred by local press groups to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

The increasing violence has raised alarms among local journalists, some of whom are receiving security training from the NUJ and other press groups. The Belfast Telegraph has revised security in its building in central Belfast and is looking at additional security measures "after the lessons on reporters' protection we took during the loyalist protest earlier this year," Connolly said. He sees two types of scenarios for violence against journalists in Northern Ireland: "On the one hand, newspapers continue to investigate the activities of paramilitary groups, and we might get threats when a reporter gets too close to the truth or inconvenient information; in times of civil disturbances, on the other hand, we see other kind of threats against reporters covering events such as the flare in protests we saw last December and January."

"There has been a growing level of threat over the last six to 12 months," an NUJ spokeswoman told CPJ. "The range of threats is increasing, and they are coming from both sides, so we are calling on all sides to stop threatening journalists and respect press freedom," she said. The role of the NUJ, a century-old journalists union with 38,000 members, has been widely praised: "It is a tribute to the NUJ that it alone appears to be the only body offering public support to threatened journalists while highlighting the pressures they are facing," said Roy Greenslade, the Guardian media commentator.

In August last year, a Belfast journalist, who was named in graffiti, sprayed on a wall, received death threats reportedly from the Ulster Defense Association (UDA). The group, also known in the past as the Ulster Volunteer Force, is an outlawed vigilante group reportedly formed to protect Protestant enclaves from attacks by Irish republicans. It officially ended its armed campaign in November 2007, 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement that launched the peace process in 1997.

Before the Good Friday Agreement, during "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, no deaths of journalists were recorded in direct relation to the conflict. But in 2001, prominent investigative journalist Martin O'Hagan was shot dead by loyalist paramilitaries, in front of his wife, as the couple was leaving a pub in the town of Lurgan. Another loyalist group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, later admitted responsibility for the Sunday World reporter's death, but the killing remains unsolved.

All the same, Connolly, a veteran local journalist, sees "no evidence that investigative journalism might be deterred by violence against the press." He declared, "We will not tolerate the threats and we will expose them every time."

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