PSNI Chief to Face Oversight Body Amid Journalist Surveillance Scandal

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher will meet with the Northern Ireland Policing Board to discuss the force's use of surveillance powers amid claims of unlawful spying on journalists. The IPT hearing revealed that the PSNI engaged in routine surveillance of several Northern Ireland-based reporters, including Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney.

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Nitish Verma
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PSNI Chief to Face Oversight Body Amid Journalist Surveillance Scandal

PSNI Chief to Face Oversight Body Amid Journalist Surveillance Scandal

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Jon Boutcher is set to meet with the Northern Ireland Policing Board on Wednesday to discuss the force's use of surveillance powers amid explosive claims of unlawful spying on journalists. The meeting comes after revelations emerged during a hearing of the royal, justice Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) in London that the PSNI engaged in routine surveillance of several Northern Ireland-based reporters, including Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney.

Why this matters: The alleged surveillance of journalists by the PSNI raises concerns about press freedom and the ability of journalists to hold those in power accountable. If left unchecked, such practices could have a chilling effect on investigative journalism, ultimately undermining democracy and the public's right to know.

The IPT is currently examining allegations that McCaffrey and Birney were subject to unlawful covert surveillance by the PSNI as part of Operation Yurta. The two investigative journalists were arrested in 2018 in connection with a documentary about the 1994 Loughinisland massacre, where six Catholic men were murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. The arrests sparked outrage from press freedom advocates and led to the PSNI paying out £875,000 in damages to the journalists.

Evidence presented at the IPT hearing suggests that the PSNI's spying operation extended well beyond McCaffrey and Birney to include several other journalists operating in Northern Ireland. Documents show that starting in 2007/8 and continuing for a decade, PSNI intelligence officers trawled through the phone data of eight unidentified journalists every six months, targeting reporters who were, in the words of one detective,"always looking for a story".

The revelations have prompted outrage from press freedom groups. Ian McGuinness, a spokesperson for the National Union of Journalists, condemned the alleged surveillance as "shocking and despicable" and called on the PSNI to "come clean" about the extent of its spying on members of the media. Journalists exist to hold power to account and that includes writing stories about the PSNI which that force may not like," McGuinness said. "Writing a story about the PSNI and protecting your confidential sources whilst doing so is not a crime."

In response to the growing scandal, Chief Constable Boutcher has written to concerned bodies to reassure them about the PSNI's surveillance practices. "The Police Service of Northern Ireland will continue to co-operate fully with the IPT and I ask that we wait for that process to conclude before speculating about what might or might not have happened in the past," Boutcher said in a statement. He is set to meet with the Policing Board's chairman Mukesh Sharma and vice chairman Brendan Mullan on Wednesday to discuss the matter in more detail.

The surveillance scandal has once again put a spotlight on the often tense relationship between the police and the media in Northern Ireland. During the Troubles, journalists frequently found themselves caught between the security forces and paramilitary groups, with both sides suspicious of the media's role. While the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought an end to large-scale violence, issues around policing and press freedom have continued to be contentious topics in the region.

As Chief Constable Boutcher prepares to face questions from the Policing Board, the full extent of the PSNI's alleged surveillance activities remains unclear. The IPT hearing is ongoing, with more revelations expected in the coming weeks and months. For now, the scandal has reignited concerns about the power of the state to monitor journalists and their sources, and the potential chilling effect such surveillance could have on press freedom in Northern Ireland and beyond.