When Talking to Dissidents is Not So Good

UPDATED 16:35
The PSNI is again attempting to use journalists to gather evidence, this time confiscating the phone of freelancer Eammon MacDermott, over allegations he spoke with dissident Republican Gary Donnelly, a spokesperson for the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, recently released from Maghaberry prison and this morning back in court in what seems to be an extreme vendetta against him. This vendetta against Donnelly is now extending to harassing journalists who speak to him in the context of their job. MacDermott, freelance and a former prisoner, is easy pickings; will the PSNI go after Sky News or Channel 4 next?

Last week the news was awash with how it’s so good to talk to dissidents; this week the PSNI has decided to flex their inept muscle and demonstrate that if you do talk to dissidents, they’ll be at your door with a warrant. Margaret Ritchie was perhaps too confident in her derision of Mi5’s lack of intelligence about dissidents, when she made noises that the PSNI might be better placed in their role. Obviously the PSNI are even worse than Mi5, as they have to resort to spying on journalists to gather information — a tactic which isn’t even worth the effort, as journalists won’t comply and it will end up getting thrown out of court anyway.

Is the arrest of Gary Donnelly and intimidation of Eamonn MacDermott an example of Chief Constable Matt Baggott’s “Personal Touch” approach? Brian Rowan writes: “to quote one senior officer, people need to be “sensible in their reactions to this””, that in dealing with dissidents, what is needed “is the police to do what they think is best, not what politicians think is best.” Even if that means trampling press freedoms? It’s a slippery slope, this wanton disregard of civil liberties. Intimidating the press won’t help catch any bad guys.

Eamonn McDermott makes the point: “We understand as journalists that there’s a thin line you don’t cross between reporting what the public have a right to know. What the police are saying is you will report what we decide you can report, which is a very worrying situation for any country to be in.”

UPDATE:
The PSNI have agreed to return Eamonn MacDermott’s SIM card, but not his phone
UTV also reports: “Séamus Dooley of the NUJ said he welcomed the decision to return the SIM card but that it “raised fundamental questions about the initial seizure of the phone.””

Earlier this morning, Gary Donnelly was charged in relation to allegations the PSNI made about conversation(s) between MacDermott and Donnelly that took place last September – almost a year ago. The judge is questioning whether MacDermott’s notes of the conversation are available. In this case, the PSNI are using a journalist to pursue their vendetta against a dissident. “Internment by Remand” as a description is not far off: Donnelly was released two months ago after serving 7 months at Maghaberry over disputed circumstances. Now he is back in jail over a year-old conversation with a journalist.

UPDATE 2: Donnelly has been released on bail:

Inside the court, an investigating officer said Donnelly was arrested at his girlfriend’s house earlier this week in relation to a claim of responsibility made by the Real IRA for the attacks on September 11, last year.

He said he believed he could connect the 39-year-old to the phone used to make that call, adding that police believed they could connect the mobile phone to Donnelly from 2008 up until a few months ago.

He further told the court that the charges arose as a result of statements from local journalist Eamonn MacDermott , who received the call of responsibility, and as a result of further extensive phone inquiries.

Applying for bail, defence solicitor, Paddy McGurk, said that police had contacted Mr MacDermott one month after the claim was made and he gave a full statement to investigating officers and was further interviewed by police on Thursday this week.

He added that Mr MacDermott had told police he would know Donnelly and would be in regular contact with him.

The solicitor also said that the 39-year-old defendant believes he may have been in contact with the journalist around this time about his appearance in court the day before September 11 2009.

However, when the investigating officer said he was unable to comment on this as he was unaware of what Mr MacDermott had told police on Thursday this week, he was accused of being “evasive” by Mr McGurk .

The hearing was then adjourned for a short time to allow police to get further information about the freelance journalist’s interview with officers earlier this week.

After the adjournment, the investigating officer said Mr MacDermott had been asked specifically if he would recognise Donnelly’s voice and if it was the 39-year-old who made the claim.

The court heard that the journalist told officers: “I don’t think so. I wouldn’t think he would be so daft to ring from his own phone. In the length of time it would have taken to read out the statement I would have recognised his voice.”

Stating it was a “serious charge”, District Judge Barney McElholm said he would grant bail because police fears could be addressed by conditions.

He said Donnelly had no prior convictions for terrorism offences and a result there was nothing to suggest a risk of further offending. The judge also said there was “essentially one witness” so there was no real fear of the 39-year-old interfering with witnesses.

Donnelly was released on his own bail of £1,000, with two sureties of £750 each, to reside in Sackville Court.