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World: Journalist Risks Jail In Northern Ireland To Protect Sources

Amnesty International is concerned about a Northern Ireland court decision that could have implications for freedom of the press in Great Britain. RFE/RL correspondent Ben Partridge reports from London.

London, 7 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A court in Northern Ireland has ordered a journalist to hand over his confidential interview notes to police. The interview in question was with a man now charged in connection with a terrorist murder.

The journalist is Ed Moloney, an editor of the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune newspaper. He is refusing to hand over his notes, in adherence to the long-time principle that journalists must protect their sources and any confidential information they acquire from those sources. But a Northern Ireland judge last week gave Moloney an ultimatum: Hand over the interview notes within seven days, or face the danger of a jail sentence of up to five years.

Amnesty International says it may declare Moloney a "prisoner of conscience" if the prosecution goes ahead. A spokeswoman for the rights movement, Halya Gowan, explains:

"We are certainly concerned that if a successful action was brought, if prosecutions were brought, and Moloney had to go to prison, it could have a deterring effect on journalists from collecting information on human rights abuses. It could also scare people who were willing to provide that information on a confidential basis."

Like much of Northern Ireland politics, the Moloney case is complex. Put simply, Moloney conducted an interview in 1990 with a Protestant activist, William Stobie. The interview centered on allegations that Northern Ireland's security forces had colluded in the murder of a Belfast lawyer who was a prominent defender of Catholic republican terror suspects.

Moloney did not publish the interview, and sat on the story for nine years. But when Stobie, the activist, was arrested in June this year and charged in connection with the murder, Moloney published the original interview. The police then stepped in, and demanded his notes.

Amnesty International is concerned that the interview notes could be used as the basis for a court case.

"We are very concerned that confidential interview notes that might be taken by a journalist or, for example, by a human rights researcher, could then be used as a basis of prosecution."

Moloney himself says the case has "serious negative implications for journalists everywhere in Ireland." He says if he gives up his notes, he might as well quit as a journalist, because in his words, "the betrayal of trust involved would mean that no one could trust me thereafter not to pass on information to the police given to me in confidence."

The Guardian newspaper recently praised Moloney's stand. An editorial said: "By fighting this case to the end, Moloney and his paper are doing not just the press, but the state, in its widest sense, a service."

Moloney has just a few more days before the grace period allowed by the judge runs out.