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18 May 2000 Edition

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Journalists pursued in censorship clampdown


Within days of a critical UN report which accused the British government of censorship, another journalist writing about Britain's covert war in Ireland is to be arrested. Liam Clarke, the Sunday Time's Six-County editor, has been told by London Metropolitan Police Detective Inspector Alan Learner to present himself for interview.

In a letter, Learner ``strongly advised'' the journalist to seek legal advice before responding. Clarke is to be arrested under the Official Secrets Act in relation to a series of articles carried by the Sunday Times based on interviews by a former member of the British military intelligence, the covert Force Research Unit.

Using the pseudonym, Martin Ingram, the former FRU operative said that the covert group had colluded with loyalist death squads and had deliberately destroyed evidence of that collusion. Ingram has said that a British Army unit, trained in covert breaking and entering, set fire to offices used by the Steven's Inquiry team.

Recently, a number of former FRU members have been arrested and questioned by the London Metropolitan Special Branch in what appears to be a desperate effort to end Ingram's career as a whistle blower by tracking him down.

A former FRU officer, who was arrested at Christmas in the belief that he was Ingram, is currently on bail. A house where the former British soldier stays outside Britain was recently broken into and a number of items stolen, including a draft of a manuscript. The document later emerged in the hands of the British government.

The action against Liam Clarke appears to have been initiated by the British Ministry of Defence, which is headed by Geoff Hoon, a close associate of Tony Blair. The Labour Party vigorously opposed the current Official Secrets Act when it was introduced by the Tories in 1989.

Commenting recently on a commitment by the British government to a new ethos of openness, Hoon endorsed proposed freedom of information legislation and described it as ``radical''. Despite this, he appears to have been central to the recent rigorous pursuit of journalists and their contacts in a concerted campaign by the British administration to stop information about their covert war in Ireland reaching the public domain.

The pursuit of Clarke follows a number of actions against journalists writing specifically about Ireland. In 1989, the home of Tony Geraghty, a former Sunday Times journalist, was raided by MoD police.

For over seven hours, military personnel trawled through Geraghty's files. The journalist's computer, disks and a modem were confiscated during the raid. Charges under the Official Secrets Act were later dropped.

Last year, the author of a book about FRU agent Brian Nelson, Nick Davies, was ordered to hand over his computer and disks. Davies was confronted by a representative of the Treasury solicitor and an MI5 officer and was handed a court order authorising the seizure of his computer and files.

The British authorities are already pursuing Observer journalist Martin Bright for interviewing former MI5 agent David Shayler. Bright has been ordered to hand over his notes to the Special Branch and is facing contempt of court proceedings if he refuses.

Others to have recently fallen foul of the British government's new ethos include author Jack Holland in relation to a book about an RUC intelligence officer; Ed Moloney of the Sunday Tribune in connection with an interview with William Stobie, a former RUC Special Branch agent implicated in the murder of defence lawyer Pat Finucane.

``The Committee'' a documentary about crown force collusion and in particular Brian Nelson, screened by Channel Four in 1991 and forerunner of McPhilemy's book of the same name, was also the subject of legal action.

Television journalist and programme researcher Ben Hamilton was arrested and Channel Four ordered to hand over documentation revealing anonymous sources interviewed in the documentary. When Channel Four refused, they were charged with contempt of court and fined £75,000. Charges against Hamilton were later dropped.

Tony Blair's apparent commitment to keeping the tracks of the British Intelligence services well covered are all the more bizarre given the latest revelations of their covert actions against many Labour Party members including MPs and members of the British Cabinet.

Clare Short, international development secretary, Jack Straw, British Home Secretary and Peter Mandleson, Six-County direct Ruler, have all recently been named as having been spied upon by British Intelligence services.

In a recent submission to the UN, Professor David Miller of Stirling Media Research Institute notes that there has been a recent ``increase in the resort to legal action to suppress journalistic inquiries''. The British state, Miller says, ``shows no willingness to acknowledge openly its own role in the `dirty' war in Northern Ireland.

``Legislative developments do not suggest a lessening of attempts by the state to control information about the activities of it's agents,'' says Miller. On the contrary ``the British government is tightening the legislative control on journalists in relation to Ireland''.

Ironically, contempt of court legislation, traditionally used to suppress the truth, is also threatening journalists refusing to pass confidential information to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday. The impetus here is exposing the truth, yet for journalists the dilemma remains the same.

Alex Thompson of Channel Four News, documentary film maker Peter Taylor and Daily Telegraph correspondent Toby Harnden are all currently facing possible contempt of court actions because they are refusing to name their sources.

In his recent findings, UN Special Rapporteur Abid Hussain considered ``the use of the Official Secrets Act to prosecute journalists and writers to be incompatible with media freedom.

The UN official criticised the ``attacks against the internationally recognised principle of the confidentiality of journalists' sources.'' Abid Hussain said emergency powers and the Official Secrets Act had restricted investigative journalism and should be scrapped.

The British government should immediately disband emergency legislation like the Prevention of Terrorism Act which ``have a chilling effect on the right to freedom and expression,'' said the UN report.

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