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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

CIoJ warns that Human Rights Law should take precedence in protecting journalistic sources

A LOCAL NORTHERN IRELAND court would be guilty of a “serious error” if it ordered journalist Suzanne Breen to disclose her sources, says the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIoJ) the oldest and most senior professional organisation of journalists in the world.

The court, presided by Belfast recorder Tom Burgess, is considering whether to order the Sunday Tribune’s northern editor, Suzanne Breen, to hand over information about the Real IRA murders of two British soldiers – Mark Quinsey, 32, from Birmingham, and Patrick Azimkar, 21, from London – in Northern Ireland in March. She had received a telephone call from the Real IRA, claiming responsibility for the murders, which she then reported in the Sunday Tribune.

“Confidentiality of sources is enshrined in European human rights law and which the UK accepted in the Human Rights Act 2006,” say the CIoJ and added: “There have already been several cases in which the European Court of Human Rights has overruled national decisions and ordered national courts to respect the confidentiality of journalists.”

The judge had given Breen’s legal team a week to find reasons why he should not require her to hand over her confidential information to the police. The case is scheduled to come back to the court on Friday this week, when the Recorder will give his final ruling.

It is clear, says the CIoJ that her legal team must spell out the meaning of Article 10 of the human rights convention. It should also give examples of legal precedent, where the European Court of Human Rights has interpreted the convention as meaning that national courts must respect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and of information given in confidence to a journalist.

If the NI court still insists on the disclosure of confidential information and of sources, Ms. Breen must appeal, advises the CIoJ. Should the Appeal Court fail to overturn the lower court’s ruling that would be to the House of Lords.

She should also be prepared to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which – according to legal precedent – will very likely decide that she should not disclose her sources nor show her papers to the police.

The CIoJ’s view is supported by Ian Forrester QC, who was lead Counsel in an important case about the confidentiality of journalist sources last autumn. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found against the European Commission and the Belgian state in the case of Hans-Martin Tillack, a correspondent for the German news magazine Stern, in which he wrote a series of articles about fraud and mismanagement at the European institutions. The court ruled that Tillack could not be requested to disclose his sources.

British barrister Forrester, who now specializes in dealing with European human rights cases at the ECHR in Strasbourg, comments that he finds it “difficult” to reconcile the Northern Ireland court’s decision with the ECHR’s judgments “about Tillack and the earlier Belgian cases”

In any case, comments the CIoJ, while appeals are being considered or are under way Suzanne Breen should not disclose her sources to the police or to any court.

“Confidentiality of sources is sacrosanct for journalists,” says Liz Justice, President of the CIoJ. “People need to be sure that they can blow the whistle about wrongdoings and tell the truth to a journalist without fearing that their identity will be revealed. In this day and age it allows the public to get to the truth.

“This safeguard may be paramount for the life and safety of the journalist and their family. He or she may well be attacked and even murdered if people who spoke to him/her fear that their identity will be revealed.”


Note to Editors

1. Formed in 1884, the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIoJ) is the oldest established professional body for journalists, and a representative voice of media and communications professionals throughout the UK, Ireland and the Commonwealth.

Liz Justice can be contacted on 07780 661926 and further information about the CIoJ is available at