Northern Irish police used covert powers to monitor over 300 journalists

Police in Northern Ireland have made 323 applications for communications data relating to journalists since 2011.

The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland disclosed the figures in a report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

The report follows concerns over the use covert powers against journalists and lawyers following hearing by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal into allegations of unlawful police surveillance against two Northern Irish journalists.

Police chief Jon Boutcher disclosed in a 48-page report that the PSNI had made 10 applications to use covert powers to identify journalist’s confidential sources between 2021 and March 2024.

“The remainder of the applications did not seek to identify a journalist’s source and their profession may have been entirely unrelated to the request,” the report said.

Northern Irish police also made 500 applications for communications data for lawyers who were victims, suspects or witnesses to crime.

The report also reveals that Northern Irish police authorised four Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) to provide intelligence on journalists or lawyers.

Courts have recognised that both journalists and lawyers have enhanced protection over their confidentiality communications with legal clients and confidential journalistic sources under European and UK law.

Policing Board chair Mukesh Sharma said that the report did not give the board the assurances that it needed.

He said that the board “remains open to all courses of action to ensure there is proper accountability on these issues, and will continue to pursue the question of the use of police surveillance powers directly with the Chief Constable.”

PSNI checked police phone logs for contact with journalists

The report confirms that the PSNI ran a separate “lawful business monitoring” process to check calls made from police phones against journalist’s phone numbers.

The PSNI said it was “normal practice” for most regulated professionals and many businesses to check that their staff are not making inappropriate calls from work.

“It is, unfortunately a necessary tactic to ensure the high standards we set for our officers and the importance we afford to protecting data and information with which we are entrusted, as the public would expect,” the report states.

“Occasionally those individuals are found to have been in contact with journalists or others in sensitive professions who deal with confidential information,” it said.

The PSNI said that it discontinued the practice in March 2023 “as its effectiveness was limited.” There were no plans to re-introduce the practice, but it could be re-introduced in the future, the report stated.

The PSNI has not disclosed how many journalists were identified using this practice, which is not governed by the Investigatory Powers Act, unlike access to telephone or internet communications data from members of the public.

On Monday Boutcher announced that he had commissioned a further investigation in the form of an “independent review” of police surveillance of journalists, lawyers and civil society groups from special advocate Angus McCullough.

The move follows disclosures in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that police had used surveillance powers in an attempt to identify journalists’ confidential sources.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal is investigating claims that the PSNI had unlawfully spied on journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey after they produced a film exposing the PSNI’s failure to investigate the murders of six innocent people killed by a paramilitary group in Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994. 

More questions than answers

Responding to the PSNI report, Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Director, said that the PSNI had raised more questions than answers.

 “The extent of surveillance revealed in the report goes well beyond the number of cases previously identified through the Investigatory Powers Tribunal,” he said,

 “It’s shocking that the police sought journalists’ communications data over 300 times, for the clear purpose of identifying their confidential sources on ten occasions,” he added.

 “In one in ten of the 323 cases targeting journalists’ communications data, the PSNI categorised the journalist as a ‘criminal suspect’. The police appear to have forgotten that journalism is not a crime.

 “As well as spying on journalists, the revelation that there were 500 applications for surveillance on lawyers, 365 of which related to private communications data, is simply startling. This report tells us nothing about how many of those incidents may have compromised lawyer-client confidentiality, a legally protected right,” he said.

Daniel Holder, Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), said, “The PSNI line seems to be shifting from downplaying that there was a broader problem, to reframing their position, to conceding that they were at it but that it’s not what we think. This is not convincing”.

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Chris Todd said that yesterday’s report aimed to show that concern about widespread, and unjustified, surveillance of journalists and lawyers was misplaced.

“This report has been published to provide reassurance to the public and stakeholders about our use of surveillance powers. It is part of our response to concerns about media coverage of reports of inappropriate use of covert powers against journalists and lawyers,” he said.

“The concern has been that there was widespread, and unjustified, surveillance of journalists and lawyers. Without pre-judging the outcome of the independent McCullough review announced by the Chief Constable earlier this week, it is important to reiterate that we believe this concern is misplaced,” he added.

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