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Journalist will not go to jail for withholding notes

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    NMU         IRELAND         Press at Home & Abroad         Nov 5, 1999    

Journalist will not go to jail for withholding notes

  • An appellate court dismissed contempt of court charges against a journalist who faced jail time if he refused to turn over notes from an interview with a man charged with the 1989 murder of a prominent attorney for the Irish Republican Army.

The High Court in Belfast in late October threw out contempt charges against Dublin Sunday Tribune editor Ed Moloney, who faced jail time for refusing to surrender his notes from an interview with a man accused of murder.

A lower court a month earlier had ordered Moloney to turn over all of his notes to police from a 1990 interview with William Stobie, a member of an “illegal loyalist paramilitary group” who was charged with the 1989 murder of prominent Irish Republican Army attorney Patrick Finucane.

Judge Anthony Hart, who wrote the lower court’s decision, noted then that the public importance of the police investigation outweighed the public’s interest in protecting journalistic sources.

Moloney, who faced a jail term of up to five years and unlimited fines if convicted under the British Prevention of Terrorism Act, appealed the court’s order. The High Court reversed the lower court’s order and dismissed the charges against Moloney.

“The Lord Chief Justice has made it quite clear that the police have got to establish a case for needing to see journalistic material,” Moloney said in an article that appeared in the Irish Times the day after the ruling. “They can’t just wade in there and automatically assume they can get it.”

Moloney also told the International Federation of Journalists that the decision is of great significance to journalists everywhere.

“It ends the power the authorities had until now to go on fishing expeditions through journalists’ filing cabinets, and by so doing, enhances the watchdog role of the media on this side of the Atlantic,” Moloney said.

Moloney’s court battle began in Summer 1999 when Stobie was arrested and charged with Patrick Finucane’s murder.

A week after Stobie’s arrest, Moloney published a story based on their 1990 interview. At the time of the interview, Stobie agreed to talk only on the condition that the information not be published unless he was arrested in Finucane’s murder or threatened by police, according to Moloney.

In the story that was published in June, Moloney identifies Stobie as a paid police informant within the outlawed Protestant group, the Ulster Defense Association, which has claimed responsibility for Finucane’s death. Stobie’s account of the events surrounding Finucane’s murder suggests police involvement.

During the interview, Stobie denied that he was involved with the murder. He claimed that he knew a killing was imminent and notified police of that fact. But he claimed that he did not know who the UDA target was at the time. He also claimed that he told police that he was to provide the guns used in the murder, but nothing was done to stop it.

The IRA has long claimed that police were involved in Finucane’s death. Their public claims triggered a special investigation by British detectives, who went to court to try and obtain Moloney’s notes and additional information about Stobie.

But police did not need his notes, Moloney told the Irish Times in a story that appeared the day after the court’s ruling.

“The (investigators) back in 1990 had over 47 hours of conversations with William Stobie,” Moloney told the Irish Times on Oct. 28. “I had five hours with him and ended up with 10 pages of typed notes. They have 122 pages of typed notes literally peppered with names.”

Christy Loftus, the president of the National Union of Journalists, said the court’s decision will not end attempts by authorities to seize information from journalists, but it will make it more difficult for them to obtain.

“It is not just a good day for us but a great day for journalists,” said Sunday Tribune editor Matt Cooper.

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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