One journalist was jailed, and another was detained and faces trial. Despite progress in January in the investigation of the murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan, another Northern Ireland journalist received a death threat on the sixth anniversary of investigative reporter Martin O’Hagan’s unsolved murder. However, the government lifted a threat to dilute freedom of information laws.
Last January, Clive Goodman, royal affairs editor of the News of the World newspaper, was jailed for four months - the first journalist jailed over his work in Britain for 40 years - for illegally accessing royal mobile-phone records. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000, was used to search his offices. Press-freedom campaigners saw this as a potentially disturbing trend.
In November, Sally Murrer, a reporter with the Milton Keynes Citizen newspaper, was charged with abetting misconduct in public office - an offence carrying possible imprisonment. She is awaiting trial. She is alleged to have received leaked information from a policeman. In May, she was detained overnight and her home and office searched. Notebooks and a computer were seized under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. The government is considering toughening this law - giving police greater powers to seize journalistic materials. Currently, these powers are restricted: officers must first satisfy a judge that the information sought relates to serious offences. In Northern Ireland, a provincial version of the tougher law was passed in 2007. Journalists protested, fearing that police will use enhanced search and seize measures to mount “fishing expeditions” in their files.
In May, two civil servants were jailed for three and six months under the Official Secrets Act for leaking an account of 2004 talks between UK prime minister Tony Blair and US president George Bush which included a suggestion to bomb the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera. The trial judge banned the media from mentioning the contents. Several media outlets appealed. The gagging order was quashed in July.
In September, on the sixth anniversary of Martin O’Hagan’s murder - apparently by paramilitaries - a Belfast journalist, Robin Livingstone, editor of the Andersontown News, received a death threat from paramilitaries: an envelope containing a bullet bearing his name, address and car number-plate. At least 10 other Northern Ireland journalists are said to be working under paramilitary threat. The original investigation into O’Hagan’s shooting failed, amid allegations - denied by police - of a cover-up of collusion between security forces and paramilitaries. O’Hagan had been investigating such alleged collusion. In late 2006, police said they suspected eight men over his murder but lacked evidence. In 2007, two fresh inquiries were launched: an internal review by police, which has examined new evidence, and an investigation by the region’s police ombudsman. Both will be completed soon.
The new Freedom of Information Act (FIA) faced a double threat in 2007. The government had planned rules that would restrict press access to official information, but dropped these in October, and instead announced it would consider extending the FIA to open up the records of some private bodies undertaking public work. Ministers will also examine ways to protect and extend freedom of assembly and expression and the right to know. A proposal by some MPs to exempt parliament from the FIA was defeated after opposition in the upper house.