United Kingdom - Northern Ireland27 September 2006
Spectre of Martin O’Hagan’s unsolved murder refuses to fade as press freedom takes a back seat on the road to peace in Northern Ireland
Five years after the investigative reporter, Martin O’Hagan, was shot dead outside his home, journalists in Northern Ireland have one simple question to ask police officers who have failed to bring anyone to justice: “Why?”.
Why, they demand to know, has no one been prosecuted, despite the publication of considerable evidence pointing to a loyalist paramilitary gang operating near O’Hagan’s home in Lurgan, County Armagh? And why has the investigation failed despite the “absolute determination” of senior government and police officials at the time of the murder to catch the killers?
These questions will be delivered to the police by O’Hagan’s branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) this week to mark the fifth anniversary of the drive-by shooting on September 28, 2001. A year ago, O’Hagan’s colleagues called for the investigation to be handed over to another police force. This has not happened. Many people now feel that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) should itself be investigated for its failure to solve a murder that shocked the region - as O’Hagan was the first reporter killed during almost 40 years of strife there. There have been repeated allegations that the police failed to pursue inquiries with vigour for fear of exposing informers or agents within the murder gang.
Belfast and District NUJ branch officials will also hand a copy of their protest letter to the region’s police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, to draw her attention to their concerns. The ombudsman is empowered to hold independent investigations into clams of police misconduct and corruption. A report on one such inquiry will soon be published. No formal complaint has yet been lodged with Ms O’Loan regarding the O’Hagan murder, but his former colleagues say this is an option that could be pursued should the case remain stalled.
O’Hagan, 51, a father of three, was gunned down as he walked home from a pub with his wife, Marie. He was a short, cheerful man - known by his friends as “Marty” and the “wee man”. He was not short on courage, however, when reporting on the murky world of criminal fiefdoms, rooted in the long sectarian conflict, and on allegations of police collusion with paramilitaries.
His killers’ apparent impunity has not fostered press freedom in the region. Despite the peace process and IRA ceasefire of recent years, death threats continue to be made by shadowy groups against investigative journalists. At the time of the murder, perhaps three journalists were said to be working under death threat. That figure more than quadrupled in the following years, and all threats must now be treated deadly seriously.
Only last month, another reporter on O’Hagan’s newspaper, the Sunday World, was informed by police of a paramilitary threat against him and advised to take extra security measures. He had been inquiring into an unsolved murder linked to one of the loyalist gangs.
“I call them the para-mafia,” said Jim McDowell, 57, editor of the Northern Ireland edition of the Sunday World, one of two newspaper groups working under a general threat. “We’ve had several warnings over the past year or so. We regularly run stories exposing criminal activities and we’ve upset militants on both sides - republicans and loyalists. I’ve had 11 threats over the years, I think. My house is like a police station, with all the security devices.”
His office is similarly protected following past arson and bomb attacks. Last year, one loyalist gang - angry at the paper’s reporting - set out to intimidate newsagents stocking the Sunday World. “In one case, petrol was poured on bundles of papers, causing a fire that nearly killed two people in the shop,” he said. Sunday World staff have called for more effective police action to prevent such threats and violence, but McDowell says there is no question of self-censorship on his paper. “Martin O’Hagan never gave up and neither will we,” he said. They were determined to continue challenging the gangs. Eight years after the Good Friday peace agreement, their readers wanted to shake off the region’s violent past.
However, other journalists say that, despite the peace process, self-censorship remains a real threat. “The problems are as bad now or even worse since Marty’s death,” said Jim Campbell, who founded the northern edition of the Sunday World and who now writes a column for it. “Some reporters think to themselves, ‘Is this going to alienate someone?’ before they write an article.” Campbell, 63, who was once shot and seriously wounded for his reporting, points to subtler forms of pressure fuelling self-censorship. “Some reporters feel they have good police contacts or contacts with government officials and don’t want to jeopardise them,” he said.
There have been reports of a growing sense of antipathy among certain politicians and establishment figures - and even in the mainstream press - towards people branded “Journalists Against the Peace Process” (JAPPs). These are reporters who seek to unearth inconvenient truths that may be unpalatable to leading figures of the peace process. Even government officials have been heard referring pejoratively to certain journalists in such terms. One man who says he was called a JAPP for asking awkward questions is Ed Moloney, an award-winning Irish journalist and author, now based in New York. He recently accused certain media colleagues of wilfully turning a blind eye to IRA ceasefire breaches and of covering up the truth to “protect” the peace process.
Kevin Cooper, chairman of Belfast NUJ branch, of which O’Hagan was secretary, defends those who rock the boat. He said: “Genuine truth is not based on misconceptions. It is achieved through eyes wide open - not eyes wide shut.”
Sanctions against JAPPs can range from a petty lack of co-operation from officials to violent threats from thugs. “There are powerful vested interests that don’t want certain information dug out,” explained Cooper. “They would rather their past roles were kept secret.”
In terms of numbers, slightly fewer reporters in Northern Ireland are believed to be working under violent threat this year - about a dozen now compared with 16 a year ago. But one journalist who has faced such threats, Mick Browne, 36, said: “I don’t think the situation is getting better. These things ebb and flow.”
In the past year, he has received one veiled threat. He has also found difficulty in getting certain stories published, such as the reporting of a campaign by Republican elements to intimidate a family to leave west Belfast. He refuses to be silenced, but concedes there is a threat to press freedom: “A culture emerges of what journalists should and should not follow up. They can be conditioned not to pursue difficult issues. In some ways, the press freedom situation here is no better than it was 20 years ago.”
Many reporters seek to resist the pressures. Two police raids on journalists’ homes have prompted official complaints. Liam Clarke, the Northern Ireland editor of London’s Sunday Times, and his wife Kathryn Johnston had their home raided in 2003 after they published leaked transcripts of telephone conversations between a senior Republican politician and government officials. Clarke says the authorities had sought to create a “chill factor” by using heavy-handed policing to stifle investigative reporting. But the couple complained to the ombudsman who ruled the police action unlawful - leading, earlier this month, to a compensation payment by the PSNI. Clarke says they complained in order to put down a “marker” to prevent routine raids on journalists’ homes.
Another journalist, Anthony McIntyre, had his home raided in 2003 by police who took away his computer, disks and notebooks, saying they were looking for stolen documents. McIntyre called it “political policing, censorship and a trawl for my contacts”. He got his property back after protesting that the raid was unlawful. McIntyre, 49, a former Republican prisoner who is a major contributor to The Blanket website, said of local press freedom: “Any improvement has been quantitative rather than qualitative. Since the peace process there has been a tendency by some with political agendas to squeeze journalists into using them as players rather than letting them operate as impartial reporters.”
Meanwhile, the unsolved murder of O’Hagan still haunts press freedom. McIntyre would like to see the stalled case going to the European Court of Human Rights, and is among journalists who believe that a referral to the police ombudsman might help break the deadlock. Eamonn McCann, chairman of Derry NUJ branch, said: “The message of not bringing the case to prosecution is that journalists cannot expect the protection of the forces of law and order. Many people think they know who was responsible, but the investigation has gone cold. It seems the police simply hope the whole thing will go away.”
Jim Campbell, who worked with O’Hagan for many years, said: “The police say they’ve no evidence to bring prosecutions. I believe they’ve plenty of evidence.” In a recent article he wrote that the police knew: the man who tipped off the Loyalist Volunteer Force gang about O’Hagan’s movements on the night he died; the person who received the tip-off; the LVF man who burned a vehicle linked to the attack; the LVF man who threatened O’Hagan before the shooting and another who later boasted of killing him.
The NUJ’s Irish secretary, Séamus Dooley, has repeated a request - made last year - for an outside police force to take over the murder investigation. In a letter this week to Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he says: "The failure to apprehend those responsible and to secure convictions through the courts is deeply worrying and our members have lost confidence in the current investigation." Dooley requests a meeting with Hain and adds: "Since Martin O’Hagan’s murder, threats to the lives of media workers have undermined the ability of journalists to carry out their professional duties."
The PSNI says it will conduct a review of the investigation and discuss the outcome of this with O’Hagan’s family. The police have always denied they had agents in the murder gang or that they were seeking to protect anyone. In the past, eight suspects have been arrested but then released for lack of evidence. Officers say they have conducted an "extensive investigation" and have appealed for people with new information to come forward. A spokesman said they "shared the frustration of ... family, friends and colleagues that no one has been made amenable for this crime".
A Northern Ireland Office spokesman said: "I haven’t come across the term Journalists Against the Peace Process, but I would deny that the Northern Ireland Office would be obstructive towards any investigative journalist."
The PSNI spokesman added: "We police fairly, impartially, even-handedly and professionally. We treat all journalists with the same courtesy and professionalism."
Kevin Cooper said: “At the time of the killing, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid [now British Home Secretary], gave assurances that all resources would be devoted to the investigation.” Five years ago, Mr Reid said: “I have spoken to the chief constable and I share his absolute determination to track down the cowards responsible for this act of savagery.” Cooper added: “We’re still waiting. We want to know why.”
Martin O’Hagan’s name will be engraved on one of the stones in the Journalists Memorial that will be inaugurated on 7 October in
Bayeux, in Normandy, France. Reporters Without Borders is helping to build this memorial, which will be dedicated to journalists
throughout the world who have lost their lives in the course of their work since Bayeux’s liberation in 1944.