In letters sent to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, Human Rights Watch questioned the U.K. government's pursuit of Northern Ireland journalist Ed Moloney.
In July, Moloney was served with an order issued by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's police force, requiring him to surrender notes from confidential interviews conducted in 1990 with William Alfred Stobie. Stobie was arrested in June 1999 and charged with the murder of Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane, who was killed by loyalist gunmen in 1989. With Stobie's permission, Moloney used the notes from the 1990 interviews for the first time as the basis for stories published in the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune on June 27, 1999. The stories alleged police collusion in Finucane's murder. Subsequently, Stobie testified in court that he had been a police informant at the time of the killing.
"The government's utter disregard for Moloney's security is striking," said Julia Hall, Counsel in the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. "The mounting evidence of state-sponsored collusion in the Finucane murder should be the government's focus, not going after a journalist who must, by the nature of his profession and in the context of on-going violence in Northern Ireland, keep his sources confidential.
Human Rights Watch urged the government to halt its pursuit of Moloney, and renewed its call for an independent judicial inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane.
The letter to Prime Minister Blair is below. A similar letter was sent to Secretary Mowlam.
August 19, 1999
Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, MP
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 0AA
By fax: 011.44.171.925.0918
Dear Prime Minister Blair:
Human Rights Watch is writing to express concern about the order served on journalist Ed Moloney, Northern Ireland editor of the Sunday Tribune, requiring him to release interview notes taken nine years ago regarding claims of security force collusion in the murder of Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane in 1989. Forcing Mr. Moloney to reveal these confidential materials, given the particular circumstances of this case, could have an immediate chilling effect on free inquiry into government accountability in Northern Ireland.
The implication of this disclosure order, given the government's longstanding refusal to institute a judicial inquiry into collusion in the Finucane murder, suggests that a journalist who sought evidence of government wrongdoing has become the target of government harassment. This can be read as a signal that independent journalists and those they interview may face not only the threat of extralegal violence but official acts that increase their exposure to such violence. This discourages the kind of independent inquiry essential to accountability in a democratic society, while putting citizens who contemplate talking in confidence to a journalist on notice that doing so could endanger them and others.
A journalist who investigates and publishes reports concerning possible government collusion in political crimes, in the context of violence of often uncertain provenance, faces a particular responsibility to protect sources and related journalistic material. Threats and violence against those critical of the security forces in Northern Ireland, and the lack of confidence in the security forces' impartiality, provides part of the context of this case. The added threat of judicial action to force those investigating collusion to disclose what may constitute evidence of gross human rights abuse contrasts vividly, in turn, with the lack of transparency and the very limited nature of the government's inquiries into collusion since the Finucane murder.
Notwithstanding the real progress toward peace in Northern Ireland, there has been little progress in building confidence in the government's response to allegations of collusion. Coercing journalists who have themselves explored collusion—while shielding the security services from a judicial inquiry—could further undermine this.
It is both Northern Ireland's context of violence and the record of the government's past response to allegations of collusion that should inform the authorities' decisions regarding access to journalists' confidential notebooks. At issue is the safety of journalists and those who meet with them in Northern Ireland with regard to issues of government accountability. There is a particular need for the government to acknowledge the special needs of the press in Northern Ireland to safeguard themselves and their sources from extralegal assault—and to protect them from intimidation. Forcing Moloney to reveal sources and notes could put him and others in real physical danger, while effectively silencing others who might otherwise speak out on collusion.
In a related case, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was applied following the broadcast of a television documentary on collusion in November 1991. Interview notes were demanded from Channel Four/Box Productions. In that case, which centered on the trial of Brian Nelson, confidential information that was provided to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) after the showing of the program led to aggressive and intimidating RUC interrogations of many of those who had cooperated with the program. This appeared to have been an unabashed effort to discredit statements critical of the security forces. At the same time, sensitive information, including the names of sources, was reportedly leaked to selected newspapers, apparently by the RUC, exposing them to possible violent retaliation.
Ed Moloney was served with an order in July 1999 to surrender notes from interviews conducted in 1990 with William Alfred Stobie. At Stobie's specific request, the notes were kept in confidence until this year. They were not used to produce a news story until June 27, 1999, after Stobie was arrested and charged with the murder of Patrick Finucane. The arrest prompted Stobie to give Ed Moloney permission to use the interview notes to tell Stobie's story. Subsequently, Stobie claimed in court that he was a police informer at the time of Finucane's murder and that he had told the police twice that a murder was about to take place. Moloney's June 27 story in the Sunday Tribune recounted this information and included details from the Stobie interviews about Stobie's prior arrest and aborted trial for alleged illegal arms possession in 1990. The article alleged that officials decided not to prosecute Stobie on the arms possession charges because he had information about security force involvement in the Finucane murder.
Human Rights Watch has written to you several times in the past regarding the Finucane murder. We have called repeatedly for an independent judicial inquiry into the murder and those calls became ever more urgent in light of Stobie's recent arrest and credible claim that he was a police informant at the time of Finucane's murder. Ed Moloney's June 1999 articles in the Sunday Tribune recount the information that Stobie is said to have channeled to the police at the time of the murder and asserts that the police did nothing to halt the Finucane murder or to find the actual perpetrators in its aftermath. Thus, it appears that the police are now seeking the disclosure of information that they already possess.
Human Rights Watch urges the U.K. government to halt its pursuit of Ed Moloney. We call on the government once again to establish a full public judicial inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane in order to hold accountable those truly responsible for and those implicated in his murder.
Holly Cartner, Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division