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United Kingdom

Area: 242,910
Population: 59,668,000.
Language: English.
Head of government: Tony Blair.

United Kingdom - Annual report 2007

Threats remain to journalists and press freedom in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK five years after the murder of the reporter Martin O’Hagan, for which no one has been punished.

The failure of the police investigation into the 2001 murder of Sunday World reporter Martin O’Hagan, and continuing deaths threats to several colleagues, makes Northern Ireland a hostile place for journalists investigating the crime gangs spawned by years of sectarian strife. The National Union of Journalists, to which O’Hagan belonged, submitted questions to police on the fifth anniversary of his murder in September, asking why the investigation had failed, despite official pledges to catch the killers.

In the O’Hagan case, a coroner’s inquest was finally held on 19 December 2006, and its findings supported the police theory that he had been shot outside his home in Lurgan, County Armagh, because he was investigating loyalist paramilitaries involved in drug trafficking. A policeman told the inquest he believed that eight men questioned in the case - but not prosecuted for lack of evidence - had been behind the murder. The police are to review their stalled investigation this year and, separately, the police ombudsman is examining allegations that elements of the police colluded with and sought to protect police agents or informers inside the murder gang. The police have always denied this.

The apparent impunity for O’Hagan’s killers did not help local press freedom and, despite the peace process, various groups are still threatening investigative journalists. In all, about a dozen journalists and two newspaper groups in Northern Ireland are believed to be working under violent threat. The latest was another Sunday World reporter, who was advised by police in August to seek official protection under a UK government scheme to assist threatened people. However, government ministers later refused to protect him, saying he did not qualify because he was a journalist and "not employed in one of the occupations normally covered by the scheme".

The former British home secretary, Charles Clarke, said in April that a "pernicious and even dangerous poison" had entered the media’s world view after the Guardian, Observer and Independent carried articles attacking the government’s civil-liberties record. He accused the media of criticising democracies because of the lack of dictatorships to target, and of taking a simplistic approach to striking a balance between freedom and security.

The BBC was attacked in October by the opposition Conservatives who accused it of making propaganda for the Taliban in Afghanistan after the TV programme Newsnight carried an interview with one of its leaders. The BBC replied that reporting the views of the Taliban was part of its job. Surprisingly, the privately owned Sky News, which also screened an interview with a Taliban commander, was not criticised.

Introduction Europe - Annual report 2007

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